NASA probe Osiris-Rex becomes ancient asteroid's first visitor

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

The asteroid is of particular interest to NASA because it may contain water and clays from the protoplasmic disc that formed the Sun and the planets in our Solar System. She said Bennu will be the smallest-ever object humans have navigated in this manner.

That's why NASA has spent $800 million on the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) program, launching a spacecraft to the space rock for an up-close-and-personal inspection of Bennu.

Just last week, Osiris-Rex flexed its mechanical arm through a full range of motion for the first time in space ahead of reaching Bennu; eventually, this instrument will be used to pluck a sample of loose dirt and rock from the surface to bring back home. We only touch the asteroid for that brief, five-second sampling contact.

OSIRIS-REx is in no hurry. Scientists think it might be older than the Solar System itself, which is about 4.6 billion years ago.

The American space agency's Osiris-Rex probe has drawn up alongside the Asteroid Bennu after a two-year, two-billion-km journey from Earth. This will be the largest sample gathered from a space object since the Apollo moon landings. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang. To their delight, newly acquired close-ups of the asteroid closely match their predictions.

"Osiris-Rex" ultimate goal is to bring back a regolith sample of at least 2.1 ounces. In the coming weeks and months, his team aims to get detailed measurements of the asteroid's shape, density and gravity that will allow scientists to fine-tune how they orbit it.

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"It will really be record-breaking in terms of the precision, the navigation, compared to anything we've done before", said flight navigator Coralie Adam, an engineer at aerospace company KinetX.

The chances of Bennu striking earth are still a fraction of a per cent. It is theorised from the study of the orbit of Bennu that gravity interaction between the two bodies during a close approach to Earth in 2060 (750,000km) will slightly alter its course.

Yet Bennu's small size also makes it possible for OSIRIS-REx to perform a series of carefully choreographed hairpin maneuvers around the asteroid. TAGSAM is the heart of the spacecraft's mission. Video animations of the spacecraft's planned orbits look like an elaborate cosmic ballet.

The mission: It will survey the asteroid from an orbit of roughly one mile, before attempting to bounce off the surface in July 2020 and collect a sample, using nitrogen gas to shift rock and other materials so it can be grabbed by an arm mechanism. Then it must turn around and retrace its path back home. In addition, the mission would study the asteroid from close up and characterize it.Information gleaned from this study, including a close-up study of the Yarkovsky effect (the subtle pressure exerted by photons of light on the asteroid, thus slowly changing its trajectory) could also be important in preventing future impacts with near-earth asteroids (NEA's).OSIRIS-REx, with Lockheed Martin as the spacecraft contractor, the Goddard Space Flight Center providing mission management, and the University of Arizona as the lead science institution, was chosen by the NASA New Frontiers program in May 2011.

Choosing today's burn as the official arrival moment was somewhat arbitrary, but as good a time as any. OSIRIS-REx has had Bennu in sight since 17 August, and by mid-November, the asteroid was big enough to make out surface details, including a 55-meter-wide boulder Lauretta likened to a pimple. Researchers will provide a more precise description at a scientific meeting on Monday next week in Washington.

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