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NASA’s asteroid-sampling spacecraft spies its target for the first time

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OSIRIS-REx will snag some asteroid dirt in mid-2020

The asteroid Bennu, which OSIRIS-REx will attempt to grab a sample from in 2020
Image: NASA

NASA’s asteroid-sampling spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, has captured its very first images of the deep-space target it’s currently hurtling toward — a nearly half-mile-wide space rock orbiting the Sun named Bennu. It’s a big step for the vehicle as it prepares for its arrival at the asteroid in December of this year.

Since the picture was taken from so far away — at a distance of 1.4 million miles — Bennu appears as just a few pixels of light moving across space. But for the OSIRIS-REx team, it shows that their spacecraft is on the right track and that Bennu is right where they expected. “Many of us have been working for years and years and years to get this first image down,” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, said during a press conference on Friday.

Launched in September of 2016, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is tasked with snagging a small sample of material from the surface of Bennu and then bringing those precious rocks to Earth. The goal is to analyze this sample to learn more about what our Solar System was like when it was just forming 4.5 billion years ago. Asteroids like Bennu are thought to have stayed mostly the same since the early days of the Solar System, and that means they may contain the same materials that served as the building blocks of the planets. Scientists also believe that asteroids carry organic matter that may have been responsible for sparking life here on Earth. So analyzing the components of asteroids could tell us how our Solar System came to be the way it is today.

An artistic rendering of OSIRIS-REx getting a sample from Bennu
Image: NASA

The OSIRIS-REx team hopes to learn as much as they can about our cosmic neighborhood from a very small sample of Bennu — up to 4.4 pounds of material. And grabbing such a tiny amount of rocks requires a mission that spans many years — OSIRIS-REx has been traveling to Bennu for nearly two years now. After arriving at the asteroid on December 3rd, the spacecraft will insert itself into the rock’s orbit on December 31st and then spend all of 2019 doing an extensive mapping campaign of the asteroid’s surface. Once it finds the right spot to sample, OSIRIS-REx will quickly tap Bennu’s surface sometime in mid-2020, grab its prize, and then head back to Earth, landing in the Utah desert in 2023.

Before all that happens, though, the mission team is trying to get a better understanding of what Bennu is like. OSIRIS-REx is now the closest it’s ever been to Bennu — even closer than the asteroid has ever been to Earth. “We are now in the vicinity of the asteroid,” Lauretta said in a press conference on Friday.

As it gets closer, OSIRIS-REx will look for any dust plumes or clouds of material that might be surrounding Bennu. So far, Lauretta says the area looks clear, which is good news for the mission, since OSIRIS-REx is supposed to get up close to the asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft will also continue to image Bennu to get a better idea of its shape. Then in October, the vehicle will begin the first of four maneuvers that will put it on the right path to get into Bennu’s orbit.

So this asteroid-sample mission is about to heat up. And soon we may get even more detailed images of the asteroid that OSIRIS-REx will be hanging around for the next two years.