NASA's probe reaches asteroid that is a potential threat to Earth

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

Osiris-Rex, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith EXplorer, began its journey in 2016 with a launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida. 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.

Scientists estimate there is a one-in-2,700 chance of the asteroid slamming catastrophically into Earth 166 years from now.

Once the NASA mission has successfully collected its spacedust from Bennu, the sample will be kept in a canister and returned to Earth in 2023, touching down in the Utah desert in late September, NASA said.

VIDEO | How and why is Nasa's Osiris-Rex mission visiting asteroid Bennu?

Now OSIRIS-REx faces a whole new kind of challenge: exploring the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft. USU's SDL provided the detector assemblies for the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite.

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

The craft will obtain somewhere between 2 ounces and 4.4 pounds of soil sample from the surface of Bennu using a robotic arm that will blast the surface with a puff of nitrogen gas and collect the pieces that fly off.

The arm has a full range of motion, with joints capable of movement comparable to shoulder, elbow and wrist joints. As such, it's an astronomical time capsule.

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The spacecraft reached Bennu shortly after noon USA eastern time today, after a two-year journey.

By 2021, the window for OSIRIS-REx's slow return to Earth will open, and it'll set itself on a path that will bring it by the the third planet in September 2023. By precisely measuring that pull, his team can begin to map out the asteroid's gravitational field, essential information for any spaceflight operation. For the asteroid, the name symbolizes the lessons it could have for researchers.

Why did NASA select Bennu out of the 780,000 known asteroids in our solar system? The asteroid fits a number of criteria that make it intriguing and convenient. The rapid rotation also sends small rocks on the asteroid's surface flying into space, meaning there's nothing there for the spacecraft to collect. Bennu's nearly 500 meters in diameter, and rotates only once every 4.3 hours. Of the 192 NEO asteroids, only 26 had a diameter larger than 200 meters.

"OSIRIS-REx seeks answers to the questions that are central to the human experience: Where did we come from?"

The asteroid could pass close to Earth, closer than the moon, in 2135, with even closer approaches possible in 2175 and 2195.

'Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid'. "Asteroids, the leftover debris from the solar system formation process, can answer these questions and teach us about the history of the sun and planets". 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. If it collided with Earth, Bennu would probably cause a crater.

"For the past several months, Bennu has been coming into focus as I approached", said NASA's OSIRIS-REx Twitter account. It orbits the sun at roughly the same distance as Earth. So it's a pile of rubble held together by its own gravity. This could also explain how it ended up as a near-Earth asteroid. "When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system".

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