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NASA spacecraft snaps detailed asteroid picture from closest orbit yet

It’s a record breaking distance for OSIRIS-REx

A picture of asteroid Bennu, taken by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from .4 miles away
Image: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

NASA’s asteroid-sampling spacecraft OSIRIS-REx just snapped its closest picture yet of Bennu, the deep-space rock it’s been hovering around since the end of last year. The high-resolution image highlights the object’s very rocky surface and even showcases a very large boulder on its southern half.

OSIRIS-REx took this up-close picture on June 13th, right after the spacecraft inserted itself into orbit around Bennu for the second time. The vehicle first got into Bennu’s orbit on December 31st, 2018, flying about a mile away from the asteroid’s surface. From that path, OSIRIS-REx mapped Bennu’s surface in intricate detail, and also observed some interesting things from this vantage point, including rocks spewing from Bennu’s surface.

OSIRIS-REx is still mapping Bennu, and last week, its mission team maneuvered the spacecraft even closer to the asteroid. Now, OSIRIS-REx is orbiting within just 0.4 miles of Bennu’s surface, which is less than the height of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. That’s the closest orbit that any spacecraft has ever achieved around another space object. And that makes the picture that OSIRIS-REx snapped above the closest image ever taken of an orbiting spacecraft.

OSIRIS-REx will stay in its tight orbit until the second week of August and will continue to figure out which sites would be best for grabbing a sample next year. It’s going to be tough, though, since OSIRIS-REx has found that Bennu is a particularly rocky place. The mission team wants the spacecraft’s sample site to be clear of debris and rocks, in order to make scooping up materials an easier process. Hopefully, this tighter orbit will allow OSIRIS-REx to get an even better view of Bennu, helping scientists figure out the best place for a sample grab by summer of 2020.