2nd LD Writethru: NASA's spacecraft arrives at asteroid Bennu

OSIRIS-REx snapped this image of Bennu from a distance of 50 miles

Why send a spacecraft to an asteroid?

The primary science goals of this survey are to refine estimates of the asteroid's mass and spin rate, and to generate a more precise model of its shape. The mission team expects to narrow the possibilities to two sites by July 2020, which is when the sample collection is scheduled to take place.

NASA's Osiris-Rex spacecraft is now just a few miles from a skyscraper-sized asteroid, Bennu, which has the potential to hit Earth in just over 150 years time. Carbon is the key to the organic molecules needed for life, so finding organic molecules on a sample from Bennu would help to answer a big question about the origin of life. Future space exploration and economic development may rely on asteroids for these materials.

There is also the possibility the asteroid sample could be rich in a valuable material that could be extracted for use on earth. After surveying Bennu, OSIRIS-REx will move into position to collect samples of the asteroid's surface material using its robotic arm.

OSIRIS-REx - the convoluted acronym stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer - is equipped with three cameras, two spectrometers, a laser altimeter and an X-ray imaging system developed by college students.

Bennu rockets around the sun at 63,000 miles per hour, a bit slower than the Earth's orbital speed, so the craft has been approaching it slowly.

The agency describes Bennu as "a carbonaceous asteroid whose regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system".

OSIRIS-REx's approach to Bennu This video shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft's view of Bennu during the final phase of its journey to the asteroid. "We have arrived!" he called out moments later.

The $800 million probe's mission is monumental in scale and in importance. The space probe will depart the asteroid in March 2021 and fly back to Earth, carrying samples it will have retrieved from Bennu. Bennu is essentially a leftover from the formation of our solar system billions of years ago, although some of the minerals inside it could be even older.

Part of the reason NASA is sending the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft there is to gather more information about the space rock which is 500 metres in length. "These observations have revealed an asteroid that is both consistent with our expectations from ground-based measurements and an exceptionally interesting small world".

While most asteroids orbit between Mars and Jupiter in a band of space that's been dubbed the Asteroid Belt, Bennu is somewhat closer to Earth.

Finally, on September 24, 2023, a capsule containing the sample will streak through Earth's atmosphere and land in the Utah desert.

For the University of Arizona, having OSIRIS-REx in the spotlight couldn't come at a better time.

"It will really be record-breaking in terms of the precision, the navigation, compared to anything we've done before", said flight navigator Coralie Adam, an engineer at aerospace company KinetX.

A fun, interactive program on NASA's OSIRIS-REx page takes you through the stages of the spacecraft's mission.

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