Published: Thu, December 06, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

NASA deep space probe reaches asteroid deemed potential Earth threat

NASA deep space probe reaches asteroid deemed potential Earth threat

OSIRIS-REx is the size of a large family auto and will hover around the asteroid for a year before it makes its attempt at collecting the samples.

The asteroid Bennu, as seen by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a distance of about 50 miles (80 kilometers).

Bennu is about 1,600 feet (500 meters) in diameter, about the size of a small mountain.

NASA's first-ever mission created to visit an asteroid and return a sample of its dust back to Earth arrives Monday at its destination, Bennu, two years after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Today's NASA stream will begin at approximately 11:45 a.m. EST and will last for around a half hour.

It 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 and return it to Earth in September 2023.

But while Bennu isn't in the asteroid belt now, scientists think that it was a long time ago.

Over the next year, OSIRIS-REx will survey the asteroid using five scientific instruments on board the spacecraft.

The asteroid Bennu seen by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a distance of 65 km on Nov. 27 2018. Credit NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center  University of Arizona
Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

OSIRIS-REx will continue doing this over the next four weeks, during close flybys over Bennu's north pole, equator and south pole that will bring the probe as close as 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) to the asteroid's surface.

The information from this mission could also help if the asteroid Bennu is at risk of hitting Earth in the future.

The craft will obtain somewhere between 2 ounces and 4.4 pounds of soil sample from the surface of Bennu using a robotic arm that will blast the surface with a puff of nitrogen gas and collect the pieces that fly off. A rock which formed in the early solar system and has been preserved by the vacuum of space, Bennu has remained relatively unchanged since its creation.

For the University of Arizona, having OSIRIS-REx in the spotlight couldn't come at a better time. She said Bennu will be the smallest-ever object humans have navigated in this manner. At worst, Bennu would carve out a crater during a projected close call 150 years from now.

"For the past several months, Bennu has been coming into focus as I approached", the probe's Twitter account said. Rocks sitting on the surface of the asteroid feel a force toward the equator, making that direction "downhill". It is theorized from the study of the orbit of Bennu that the gravity interaction between the two bodies during a close approach to Earth in 2060 (466,000 miles) will slightly alter its course.

Scientists estimate there is a one-in-2,700 chance of the asteroid crashing into Earth 166 years from now. "We work together to understand the history of the solar system". After departing Bennu in 2021, OSIRIS-REx is slated to return home with the asteroid sample on board in September, 2023. Those like Bennu contain natural resources, such as water, organics and metals.

On Monday, the U.S. space agency's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at a nearby asteroid that's of great importance to scientists: it might have answers about what early Earth was like, but there's a decent chance it might hit us, too.

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