Asteroid Arrival

NASA’s First-Ever Asteroid Return Mission Just Reached Its Target

Next up: actually snatching samples from Bennu.

12. 3. 18 by Kristin Houser
NASA
Image by NASA

Hello Bennu

A spacecraft that could help us understand the history of the solar system just reached its destination.

Around noon on Monday, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at Bennu, a 1,600-foot-wide asteroid located about 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) from the Sun. OSIRIS-REx is the first NASA spacecraft designed to collect samples from an asteroid and bring them back to Earth — and those samples could contain valuable insights about our solar system’s earliest years.

Lay of the Land

It took OSIRIS-REx two years to arrive at Bennu, but it’s not going straight in for a landing. Right now, the craft is roughly 12 miles above the asteroid’s surface, and in January, it’ll move in to a distance of just about a mile above Bennu’s surface.

It’ll spend about a year and a half using a series of five instruments to analyze and map the asteroid from that distance. From that data, NASA’s researchers will determine the ideal spot for a sample retrieval, which will involve OSIRIS-REx “bouncing” off Bennu in 2020.

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Clues to the Past

Asteroids are a remnant of the early solar system, and because they remain largely unchanged from the time of their formation, they can provide valuable insights into what the solar system was like during its infancy.

NASA expects OSIRIS-REx to deliver its samples in 2023, so we could be just half a decade from having our hands on clues that help us unravel a mystery billions of years old.

READ MORE: NASA Spacecraft Meets With Asteroid [CNN]

More on Bennu: To Bennu and Back: NASA Just Launched the First-Ever Asteroid Return Mission

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