REx arrives at Bennu asteroid, sends back fly-in images

NASA Probe Reaches Asteroid Bennu Ready to Collect Samples

NASA Probe Reaches Asteroid Bennu Ready to Collect Samples

The mission will give vital information on how to deflect asteroids from their collision course with Earth. Such analyses will address the chief mission goal: helping researchers better understand the solar system's early days, and the role that carbon-rich asteroids such as Bennu may have played in life's emergence on Earth.

Both Bennu and Ryugu are near-earth asteroid, with a diameter of about 500 meters and 900 meters respectively.

"During our approach toward Bennu, we have taken observations at much higher resolution than were available from Earth", said OSIRIS-REx project manager Dr.

"The story of this asteroid is the story of the solar system", said Bashar Rizk, instrument scientist for OSIRIS-REx. Carbon is the key to the organic molecules needed for life, so finding organic molecules on a sample from Bennu would help to answer a big question about the origin of life. Its orbit switches between those of Earth and Mars, making it what's officially called a "near-Earth asteroid".

NASA's deep space explorer Osiris-Rex flew on Monday to within a dozen miles of its destination, a skyscraper-sized asteroid believed to hold organic compounds fundamental to life as well as the potential to collide with Earth in about 150 years. To their delight, newly acquired close-ups of the asteroid closely match their predictions. Dante Lauretta, the mission's principal investigator, told reporters later that the burn appeared to have gone well, but he was eager to read the navigation report, which was probably waiting in his inbox. And touch and go is exactly what the spacecraft must achieve.

That makes orbiting - which relies on a delicate balance between a spacecraft's velocity and an object's gravity - especially hard. Space Navigation and Flight Dynamics, Simi Valley, Calif. To that end, the College of Optical Sciences, which helped design some of OSIRIS-REx's cameras in conjunction with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Steward Observatory, recently received a $20 million endowment. Even the faint pressure of sunlight warming the spacecraft can create sufficient thrust to warp its orbit.

Japanese space agency JAXA first proved sample collection from an asteroid was possible. This ensures that the solar radiation pressure remains constant, so engineers can make sure they continuously counteract it.

It 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 and return it to Earth in September 2023. It is the smallest object ever to be orbited by a human-made spacecraft. TAGSAM is the heart of the spacecraft's mission. Video animations of the spacecraft's planned orbits look like an elaborate cosmic ballet.

During the five-second maneuver, compressed nitrogen gas will shoot into the collector, stirring up and lifting small rocks and soil. Then it must turn around and retrace its path back home. It's expected to arrive on September 2023 and the sealed sample contained will reenter the atmosphere using a heat shield and float back to scientists via parachute into the Utah desert. Such work could improve asteroid-impact forecasts, NASA officials have said.

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