Rex Mission Arrives At Asteroid Bennu After 2 Years

The asteroid Bennu seen by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a distance of 65 km on Nov. 27 2018. Credit NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center  University of Arizona

The target is Bennu, carbon-rich asteroid, the kind of cosmic body that may have delivered life-giving materials to Earth billions of years ago. However, the space probe's main mission will not begin until next year.

The spacecraft, technically the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) is orbiting the asteroid Bennu, a diamond-shaped chunk of space rock with a varying orbit that keeps it around 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) from Earth.

U.S. based space agency NASA's spacecraft OSIRIS-REx rendezvoused with its targeted asteroid Bennu on Monday after a two-year space travel.

Engineer Tim Linn explains how the Osiris-Rex will suck up asteroid dust. The spacecraft will collect samples from the space rock which could pave the way for an asteroid mining industry, with some of them worth trillions of dollars due to their minerals which are scarce on Earth such as platinum.

With the arrival of Osiris-Rex at Bennu on Monday, and InSight's landing on Mars last week, it has been an eventful time for NASA of late. NASA expects to study Bennu over18 months.

The mission's navigation team will use the preliminary survey of Bennu to practice the delicate task of navigating around the asteroid. Everything in the solar system is in motion, and gravity rules the day.

Now Bennu is slowly spiraling towards the sun, a trajectory that will bring it through Earth's part of the solar system.

The asteroid Bennu seen by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a distance of 65 km on Nov. 27 2018. Credit NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center  University of Arizona
Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

Both Bennu and Ryugu are considered potentially hazardous asteroids. (Relax. They don't think it will.) Its closest approach to Earth is every six years and it orbits the Sun on the same plane as Earth.

A NASA mission to an asteroid arrives at its destination today. Too small, around 200 meters or less in diameter, and it spins so fast you can't land on it.

'Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid'. Over time, any force (like an impact) that dislodges surface rocks gives them a chance to move downhill, so the equator now bulges out as material has piled up. Asteroids are remnants of the building blocks that formed the planets and enabled life. It will enter the asteroid's orbit on New Year's Eve, NASA now plans. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

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. To do that it has a specialized piece of equipment called TAGSAM, or Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism. It consists of a sampling head and an arm that is 3.35-meter (11 ft) long. "We'll do this first globally, and from there prioritize two candidate sample sites".

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. When the spacecraft is touching down, nitrogen gas from a canister will be released to make dust and pebbles rise and enter the sampler.

The capsule of samples should then detach and return to Earth by 2023, hopefully bringing valuable information about Bennu's makeup.

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