First NASA probe to return asteroid sample reaches destination

Leonid Kulik  NASA  Wikipedia

Japan's Hayabusa mission returned a small sample of an asteroid known as 25143 Itokawa in 2010; a successor craft, Hayabusa-2, arrived at an asteroid called Ryugu a year ago and is expected to return a sample in 2020.

After traveling for more than two years NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft has arrived that Bennu, an asteroid scientist believe could one day hit earth.

The spacecraft was launched from Florida in September 2016 and has since hurled through space at speeds of over 100,000km/h. Unlike Ryugu, which is roughly twice as big and has a rugged surface with nearly no smooth spots anywhere, Bennu appears more granular to my eye. It's a critical step in OSIRIS-REx's years-long quest to collect and eventually deliver at least two ounces (60 grams) of regolith - dirt and rocks - from Bennu to Earth.

Now, at about 11.8 miles (19 km) from Bennu's Sun-facing surface, the spacecraft will begin a preliminary survey of the asteroid.

During OSIRIS-REx's stay at Bennu, scientists are hoping to learn more about the earliest days of the solar system, because asteroids are the rubble left behind as planets formed.

The thing that excites me most about the OSIRIS REx mission is the fact that we are literally going to a world that we've never been to before.

During the five-second maneuver, compressed nitrogen gas will shoot into the collector, stirring up and lifting small rocks and soil. This latest rock is named Ryugu and is about double the size of Bennu. It was "flexed" in space for the first time on November 14. "We can't wait to get to work studying and characterizing Bennu's rough and rugged surface to find out where the right spot is to collect the sample and bring it back to Earth".

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The sampler head is stored in the Sample-Return Capsule (SRC) and OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth. Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / University of Arizona. 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. The asteroid fits a number of criteria that make it intriguing and convenient.

At 500m wide, Bennu is small compared to the 10-15km-wide asteroid that caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs.

OSIRIS-REx is in no hurry.

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

And OSIRIS-REx's precise tracking of Bennu through space will help researchers better understand the non-gravitational forces (specifically, the Yarkovsky effect) that shape asteroids' trajectories. Water, another vital component to the evolution of life, may also be trapped in the asteroid's minerals.

In addition, it is larger than 200 meters and so does not spin rapidly (which would complicate sample retrieval), and it is a primitive carbon-rich leftover from the beginnings of the solar system, with organic molecules, volatiles, and amino acids that could tell us how life began on Earth.

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