NASA spacecraft arrives at ancient asteroid, its 1st visitor

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

Yesterday (Dec. 3), NASA's OSIRIS-REx probe sidled up to its diamond-shaped target, the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, ending a deep-space chase that lasted 27 months and covered more than 1.25 billion miles (2 billion kilometers).

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.

The mission, headed by principal investigator Dante Lauretta, was planned as a mission to the asteroid then known as 1999 RQ36, an approximately 500 meter (0.5 km) diameter potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA) that has a 1 in 1800 chance of impacting Earth in 2182.

The low gravity of smaller objects like asteroids makes it more hard to target missions.

Scientists hope they will get to examine the contents of an astronomical time capsule, with the carbon-rich material taken from Bennu's surface holding evidence from the beginning of the solar system 4.5bn years ago. The company built the spacecraft there. The spacecraft 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.

OSIRIS-REx scientists expect to reveal the results of their early surveys of Bennu next week at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington. It has three spectrometers: a visible and infrared one, a thermal spectrometer, and an X-ray spectrometer.

During the first flyby, the spacecraft's Canadian-provided laser altimeter, OLA, will be powered on to start making topographic maps of Bennu's surface.

Engineer Tim Linn explains how the Osiris-Rex will suck up asteroid dust. We only touch the asteroid for that brief, five-second sampling contact.

Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe
NASA Craft Explores Rare Asteroid That Might Be on Killer Course Toward Earth

A camera called StowCam will be used to verify that this deposit was successful while two Navcams and a GN&C lidar will be used to navigate the spacecraft.

Launched on September 8, 2016, OSIRIS-REx is NASA's mission to explore the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, collect a sample and return it to Earth. If it collided with Earth, Bennu would probably cause a crater.

Visit Space.com today for full coverage of OSIRIS-REx's arrival at Bennu. This will get a mass estimate, refine the spin-state model, and generate a 75 cm global shape model.

A lead flight controller at the Lockheed Martin control center in Colorado looked at an instrument panel and announced, "We have arrived".

Artist's conception of OSIRIS-REx collecting space rocks on Bennu.

While most asteroids orbit between Mars and Jupiter in a band of space that's been dubbed the Asteroid Belt, Bennu is somewhat closer to Earth.

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. The Japanese mission was the first to land moving rovers on the surface of an asteroid, and it will also return samples to Earth in 2020. The spacecraft will grab a sample and study the rock before coming home.

OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth in September 2023, dropping the sample container off for a high-speed plunge to the Utah Test and Training Range about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City in Utah.

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