NASA spacecraft to land on Bennu asteroid

Olive Hawkins
December 4, 2018

Scientists hope they will get to examine the contents of an astronomical time capsule, with the carbon-rich material taken from Bennu's surface holding evidence from the beginning of the solar system 4.5bn years ago.

But because Bennu naturally spins through Earth's space neighborhood, there's a slight potential that Bennu will travel dangerously close to Earth in 2175 and 2195.

The goal of both missions is to learn more about how the original solar nebula coalesced to form the sun and its retinue of planets, asteroids and comets, giving scientists a better understanding of the raw materials that went into Earth's construction and even the eventual development of life.

The sampler head is stored in the Sample-Return Capsule (SRC) and OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth.

And since Bennu has a 1-in-2,700 chance of impacting Earth about 200 years from now, researchers figure it would be good to glean insights about the asteroid's fate - and how it might intersect with our own.

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.

NASA's first-ever mission created to visit an asteroid and return a sample of its dust back to Earth arrived Monday at its destination, Bennu, two years after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Hayabusa 2 arrived at Ryugu on June 27, 2018, when the asteroid was nearly 170 million miles from Earth. So close that it's considered a Potentially Hazardous Object (PHO), an object with an orbit that brings it close to Earth, and that's large enough to do serious damage if it struck.

OSIRIS-REx will spend the next 18 months there, surveying the landscape and probing Bennu's chemical makeup before finally selecting what piece of the asteroid it wants to bring back home.

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Asteroids may have played a role in the origins of life here on Earth by delivering organic molecules to our planet in its early days.

Scientists hope Bennu will provide more clues about the early formation of the solar system, but they will also be looking out for precious resources like metals and water. OSIRIS-REx arrived at the space rock on December 3.

"Relieved, proud, and anxious to start exploring!"

Then, in 2020, it will reach out with its robotic arm and touch the asteroid in a maneuver Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager with Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, described as a "gentle high-five". In July 2020, after a year and a half of detailed mapping and rehearsals, OSIRIS-REx will briefly push TAGSAM, shaped somewhat like an inverted pie dish, into contact with the surface of Bennu. Every six years, Bennu passes within 185,911 miles of Earth.

Engineer Tim Linn explains how the Osiris-Rex will suck up asteroid dust. Japan managed to return some tiny particles in 2010 from its first asteroid mission, also named Hayabusa.

Contact with Bennu will not significantly change its orbit or make it more unsafe to us, Lauretta stressed.

The spacecraft launched on September 8, 2016 at 19:05 EST aboard an Atlas V rocket. Its odometer read 1.2 billion miles (2 billion kilometers) as of Monday.

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. Osiris is the god of the afterlife, while Bennu represents the heron and creation.

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