NASA spacecraft to land on Bennu asteroid

Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

OSIRIS-REx will fly over Bennu's north pole on 4 December, at a distance of just 7 kilometers. Today's milestone marks the end of a two-year journey to Bennu, and the start of a 1.5-year study period.

Japanese space agency JAXA first proved sample collection from an asteroid was possible. Bennu is essentially a leftover from the formation of our solar system billions of years ago, although some of the minerals inside it could be even older. Scientists think that it came from the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, but drifted closer to Earth because of the gravitational interactions between planets.

Knowing the mass of this 1,600-foot-wide asteroid will reveal valuable information about not just Bennu, but other chunks of space debris, too, Scheeres said.

Bennu is due to make a close pass of Earth in about 150 years possibly involving a collision.

OSIRIS-REx has a camera suite, a laser altimeter for 3D mapping, a thermal emission spectrometer to take temperature and mineral content and spectrometers to measure X-rays, almost infrared and visible light.

Soon an image of the asteroid appeared on the mission control screens: a diamond-shaped body with a rough, speckled exterior. Too small, around 200 meters or less in diameter, and it spins so fast you can't land on it. That's right, the spacecraft will briefly touch the surface of Bennu to grab a sample of it.

Scientists say the ancient asteroid could hold clues to the origin of life. Astronomers have studied Bennu intensely from a distance, and they know that it's a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. Those like Bennu contain natural resources, such as water, organics and metals. OSIRIS-REx is an acronym of the mission objectives. After jettisoning the sample, OSIRIS will redirect itself on a new course, this time entering a stable orbit around the sun.

"Once we have this data, we can plug it back in and that will help with planning out the trajectory for the rest of the mission", said Daniel Brack, a graduate student in aerospace engineering and a participant in the project.

Researchers in labs around the world will then pore over the space stuff with a variety of high-tech gear - big and expensive equipment that could never have fit aboard OSIRIS-REx (which does sport five science instruments of its own).

Lots of spacecraft have cameras and spectrometers, and laser altimeters are becoming more common, but the main focus of OSIRIS-REx is sample-return.

TAGSAM stands for Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism - an arm that reaches out from the spacecraft. Lauretta said there was a chance of sending the carrier spacecraft on an extended mission after that, but for now, he wants the team to stay focused on the primary mission. After a couple of flybys, OSIRIS-REx will settle into a steady orbit a few miles above the surface.

Afterward, the Orbital-B survey will finish mapping Bennu well enough to select a primary and backup sampling site.

The dust will be captured in the sampler head.

After backing away, OSIRIS-REx will direct the robot arm to place the collector inside an aerodynamic sample return capsule.

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