NASA's first-ever mission created to visit an asteroid and return a sample of its dust back to Earth arrived Monday at its destination, Bennu, two years after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Upon landing, it'll take samples of the asteroid's surface and then return back to Earth to deliver that material to eager scientists.
The $800 million Osiris-Rex mission began with a 2016 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
On Tuesday, the spacecraft will fly within 5 miles of Bennu, which will help design future orbits and map the surface.
This will be packed away in a sterile capsule to be returned home in 2023.
This enabled Osiris-Rex to match Bennu's velocity through space, and bring it to about 7km from the rock at closest approach. OSIRIS-REx will actually need to spend a good deal of time hanging out in orbit around Bennu before it makes its move, so today is just confirmation of the probe's arrival.
The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of five science instruments to study the asteroid for the next year and a half, mapping it in high resolution to help scientists decide precisely where to sample from.
Just days ago, 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 regolith sample from the surface to bring back home.
NASA said the estimated 2.1-ounce sample size equates to about 30 sugar packets worth of dirt and rocks.
The spacecraft will collect samples from the space rock which could pave the way for an asteroid mining industry, with some of them worth trillions of dollars due to their minerals which are scarce on Earth such as platinum.
It will also give vital information on how to deflect asteroids from their collision course with Earth.
"Bennu's low gravity provides a unique challenge for the mission", said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
The long-awaited rendezvous officially kicks off the start of the ambitious mission to study a near-Earth object that could hold the key to understanding the origins of our solar system, and life itself. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang.
Asteroids could even serve as fuel stations for robotic and human missions if we can unlock the hydrogen and oxygen inside them, NASA said.
NASA fears that the asteroid, which has the potential to wipe out a country on Earth, could hit our planet within the next 200 years, with the next close flyby in 2135, but this depends on the Yarkovsky effect.
'We know from having studied Bennu through Earth- and space-based telescopes that it is a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. This could also explain how it ended up as a near-Earth asteroid. "When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system".