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. "We have arrived!" announced Lockheed Martin Communications Engineer Javier Cerna. It's not the first asteroid sample return, though-the first "troubled" Hayabusa mission from Japan brought back 1,500 dust grains from the asteroid Itokawa after considerable difficulties. NASA scientists think the 484-meter-wide rock was once part of a much larger asteroid, which Space.com suggests was as large as the U.S. state of CT (which is 110 miles wide and 70 miles long), that was blown apart by some colossal collision a billion years ago.
But there's still a lot to learn about the object, said University of Arizona Planetary Scientist Bashar Rizk, who oversees three of OSIRIS-REx's cameras.
"The spacecraft will spend nearly a year surveying the asteroid with five scientific instruments with the goal of selecting a location that is safe and scientifically interesting to collect the sample".
Finally, on September 24, 2023, a capsule containing the sample will streak through Earth's atmosphere and land in the Utah desert. After a couple of flybys, OSIRIS-REx will settle into a steady orbit a few miles above the surface. Though small asteroids can rotate very quickly, Bennu has a diameter just a bit bigger than the height of the Empire State Building and rotates relatively slowly, each 4.3 hours. The spacecraft will grab a sample and study the rock before coming home.
The craft also captured a look at Earth and moon in their "orbital dance" back in January. "Bennu is one of the ones we are watching", Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx principal investigator, said in August.
Osiris-Rex will then extend its robot arm to snatch a sample of Bennu's terrain in a " touch-and-go" manoeuvre set for July 2020.
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Scientists say the ancient asteroid could hold clues to the origin of life. "Asteroids, the leftover debris from the solar system formation process, can answer these questions and teach us about the history of the sun and planets".
The OSIRIS-REx, after some moments of drama caused by the explosion of a Falcon 9 on a nearby launch pad and some quick work to ensure that this incident would not cause a loss of cooling capability to the spacecraft on its launch pad, launched successfully on September 8, 2016, at 7:05 pm Eastern Daylight Time.
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. It's easier to land on, and once on the surface, there will be plenty of material to sample. At that point, in situ science will come to an end and OSIRIS-REx will simply wait for Earth and Bennu to reach the proper positions in their orbits to begin the long trip home. It is theorised from the study of the orbit of Bennu that gravity interaction between the two bodies during a close approach to Earth in 2060 (750,000km) will slightly alter its course. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang.
'Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid'.
OSIRIS-REx was within 12 miles of Bennu's surface - about the distance between the White House and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the spacecraft.
The craft will obtain somewhere between 2 ounces and 4.4 pounds of soil sample from the surface of Bennu using a robotic arm that will blast the surface with a puff of nitrogen gas and collect the pieces that fly off.