OSIRIS-Rex launched two years ago in September to hunt for a 1,650-foot-wide (500 meters) space rock called Bennu. It finally got a little closer to it – at a 1.4 million miles (2.2 million kilometers) distance, stated NASA officials on 24 August:
“I know Bennu is only a point of light here, but many of us have been working for years and years and years to get this first image down, and it really represents the beginning of the great scientific expedition that is OSIRIS-Rex,” wrote the principal investigator of OSIRIS-Rex, Dante Lauretta.
Check out the Tweet posted by Lauretta with a short video showing Asteroid Bennu moving in front of NASA’s probe.
In the next months, the probe will approach the asteroid and, if everything goes according to plan, it should get very close to it on 3 December and fly by the space rock to take some measurements and find out Bennu’s mass. On 31 December, the probe will circle the asteroid. Michael Moreau, who is part of the OSIRIS-Rex (the flight dynamics system manager), explains that this will be a difficult task:
“It’s Bennu’s size and small mass that make the navigation challenges on this mission unprecedented, really. On December 31, when we insert into orbit, then it will become the smallest planetary object to ever be orbited by a spacecraft.”
After studying Bennu from its orbit, the spacecraft will attempt to get close enough to the rock’s surface to get a sample from the rock – this will happen at the middle of 2020. In March 2021, the spacecraft will leave Bennu and send the capsule sample back to Earth which will parachute down in September 2023.
Why Target Bennu?
You might wonder why choose this asteroid and not a different one? Well, Bennu is an asteroid rich in carbon – the chemical building blocks of life that in combination with a lot of water made our planet sprout life. The sample that would return from the asteroid could shed light on the early life in the solar system and Earth.
OSIRIS-REx is an abbreviation of: “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer,” which means that the mission will explore and try to answer to many questions: will the asteroid ever slam into Earth at the end of the 22nd century? Will it enable asteroid mining, as it might contain water (which split into hydrogen and oxygen) and help fuel the missions?
Lauretta explains that the probe will be a demonstration of vital navigation skills, and that:
“Any asteroid mining endeavor is going to have to understand how to do that.”
The teams from OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 have been working together, added Lauretta, concluding that the collaboration will help them in the final stage, when the probe begins touch-and-go maneuvers to collect samples from Bennu.
Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere