Science

NASA's first asteroid sample-collector arrives at target, Bennu

NASA's first asteroid sample-collector arrives at target, Bennu”

As NASA scientists learn more about Bennu, they'll be comparing their findings with counterparts from the Japanese Space Agency, whose Hayabusa 2 spacecraft arrived at the asteroid Ryugu earlier this year.

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.

A rocket carrying NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft lifts off on September 8, 2016 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The spacecraft launched on September 8, 2016 at 19:05 EST aboard an Atlas V rocket. It's also the smallest object any spacecraft has ever orbited.

The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of five science instruments to study the asteroid for the next year and a half, mapping it in high resolution to help scientists decide precisely where to sample from. "All the data I collect will help my team pick a spot to sample in 2020". In the New Year, the hope is to lower the altitude of the probe so that it's captured by Bennu's gravity. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that OSIRIS-REx arrived within Bennu's Hill Sphere - the region where the asteroid's gravity field is stronger than the Sun's - on 1 December.

They hope the robot will collect at least 60g (two ounces) of dust and gravel from Bennu, using a 3m (10ft) mechanical arm to hoover up particles.

"Now that we've arrived, we will explore [Bennu's] surface through a series of flybys and orbital campaigns that allow us to determine which areas on Bennu are the safest and have material that can be ingested by our sampling mechanism", Daniella DellaGiustina of the University of Arizona told Sky and Telescope. The craft has enough nitrogen gas for three attempts, if this first try doesn't work. The spacecraft will grab a sample and study the rock before coming home.

"With asteroids, you have a time capsule".

About the size of an SUV, the spacecraft will shadow the asteroid for a year, before scooping up some gravel for return to Earth in 2023.

If all goes well, the craft will bring the sample back to Earth in September 2023. Afterward, 75% of the returned sample will remain at NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center so it can be used for more research by scientists from around the world.

The asteroid may provide answers to the origin of our solar system, according to NASA. The asteroid fits a number of criteria that make it intriguing and convenient.

OSIRIS-REx is in no hurry.

The asteroid could pass close to Earth, closer than the moon, in 2135, with even closer approaches possible in 2175 and 2195.

All about Bennu: Bennu is a primitive, carbon-rich asteroid believed to be made up of leftovers from the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

Bennu is also close to Earth.

Soon an image of the asteroid appeared on the mission control screens: a diamond-shaped body with a rough, speckled exterior.

This November 16, 2018 photo from NASA s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, obtained December 3, 2018 courtesy of NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona, shows the asteroid Bennu from a distance of 85 miles (136 km). This knocked it through space until an orbit close to Earth locked it in place.

But its orbit drifts 0.18 miles each year toward the sun, and OSIRIS-REx will enable researchers to understand why and to predict Bennu's movements.

It will also give vital information on how to deflect asteroids from their collision course with Earth.

Asteroids are left-overs from the original building blocks of the Solar System.

A fragment of the early solar system, Bennu is also considered potentially risky.



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