NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has finally arrived at asteroid Bennu more than two years after blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The long-awaited rendezvous officially kicks off the start of the ambitious mission to study a near-Earth object that could hold the key to understanding the origins of our solar system, and life itself.
OSIRIS-REx will spend the next year in orbit around its target before dropping down briefly so it can get close enough to scoop up a sample of dirt and rock from the surface.
NASA aired live coverage of its arrival starting at 11:45 a.m. ET, shortly before the spacecraft began the 20-second burn that put it on the right trajectory around the asteroid.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has finally arrived at asteroid Bennu more than two years after blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
‘We have arrived,’ technicians announced, spurring high-fives and clapping around the control room.
Just days ago, Osiris-Rex flexed its mechanical arm through a full range of motion for the first time in space ahead of reaching Bennu; eventually, this instrument will be used to pluck a regolith sample from the surface to bring back home.
The craft has now traveled more than a billion miles since launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in September 2016.
Osiris-Rex’ ultimate goal is to bring back a regolith sample of at least 2.1 ounces. It will first survey the asteroid’s surface for a year, before selecting a safe and ‘scientifically interesting’ location to scoop up some rocks.
If all goes well, the craft will bring the sample back to Earth in September 2023.
Osiris-Rex has been sending back photos throughout the course of its journey, revealing glimpses at its then-faraway target and even our own planet from millions of miles way.
In August, the craft snapped its first image of asteroid Bennu.
While the blurry snapshot might not look like much, its first look was the closest we’ve come to the space rock yet, at 1.4 million miles away.
The craft also captured a look at Earth and moon in their ‘orbital dance’ back in January.
Asteroid Bennu, which Osiris-Rex will spend the next few years studying, is said to be a carbon-rich hunk of rock that might contain organic materials or molecular precursors to life.
Osiris-Rex captured a ‘super-resolution’ view (left) of asteroid Bennu on October 29, 2018. The photo was created using eight images obtained by the spacecraft from a distance of about 205 miles (330 kilometers)
HOW WILL NASA’S OSIRIS-REX MISSION TO TAKE SAMPLES FROM AN ASTEROID WORK?
Osiris-Rex is the first US mission designed to return a piece of an asteroid to Earth.
Scientists say the ancient asteroid could hold clues to the origin of life.
It’s believed to have formed 4.5 billion years ago, a remnant of the solar system’s building blocks.
The spacecraft launched on September 8, 2016 at 19:05 EST aboard an Atlas V rocket.
After a careful survey of Bennu to characterise the asteroid and locate the most promising sample sites, Osiris-Rex will collect between 2 and 70 ounces (about 60 to 2,000 grams) of surface material with its robotic arm and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023.
To capture samples on the surface, the craft will hover over a specific area and ‘will be sent down at a very slow and gently’ 4 inches (10 cm) per second.
The spacecraft will also carry a laser altimeter, a suite of cameras provided by the University of Arizona, spectrometers and lidar, which is similar to radar, using light instead of radio waves to measure distance.
‘Analyzing a sample from Bennu will help planetary scientists better understand the role asteroids may have played in delivering life-forming compounds to Earth,’ NASA explains.
‘We know from having studied Bennu through Earth- and space-based telescopes that it is a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang.
‘Bennu is likely rich in organic molecules, which are made of chains of carbon bonded with atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements in a chemical recipe that makes all known living things.
‘Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid.’
Just last week, Osiris-Rex flexed its mechanical arm through a full range of motion for the first time in space ahead of reaching Bennu; eventually, this instrument will be used to pluck a sample of loose dirt and rock from the surface to bring back home. Artist’s impression
Once Osiris is ready to collect a sample, it will drop down closer to Bennu and hover over the surface like a hummingbird, with only its mechanical arm getting close enough to touch the asteroid.
The Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) will suck up the regolith, kicked up by its nitrogen gas thrusters, and hopefully collect enough to study back at home.
Scientists estimate the asteroid formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago.
‘Bennu is a leftover fragment from the tumultuous formation of the solar system,’ NASA says.
‘Some of the mineral fragments inside Bennu could be older than the solar system. These microscopic grains of dust could be the same ones that spewed from dying stars and eventually coalesced to make the Sun and its planets nearly 4.6 billion years ago.’