Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

NASA space probe reaches asteroid deemed potential threat to Earth

Illustration showing the arrival of NASA's OSIRIS-REx NASA's OSIRIS-REx Probe Reaches Asteroid Bennu
Sandy Nunez | 07 December, 2018, 18:02

It took a little over two years and more than two billion kilometers of cruising, but NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made it.

This meet up, which happened this morning, is the first in a series of planned close encounters between the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) and Bennu.

This image of Bennu was taken by OSIRIS-REx from a distance of about 50 miles (80 km). Campins is one of two UCF facility working on the mission, along with Yan Fernandez.

The $800 million unmanned mission, known as OSIRIS-REx, made a rendez-vous with the asteroid at around 12:10 pm (1710 GMT), firing its engines a final time.

"We'll just need to wait and see".

NASA's deep space explorer Osiris-Rex flew on Monday to within a dozen miles of its destination, a skyscraper-sized asteroid believed to hold organic compounds fundamental to life as well as the potential to collide with Earth in about 150 years.

OSIRIS-REx will spend the next 18 months there, surveying the landscape and probing Bennu's chemical makeup before finally selecting what piece of the asteroid it wants to carry home.

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Campins' main focus will be on the science map. "Bennu is a building block of the planets that didn't end up in a planet". In addition, it is believed that carbon-rich asteroids such as Bennu, may be responsible for the supply of amino acids and water on the young Earth. "Really, we think this will be widespread but we want to be sure".

The best-case scenario is that the mapping efforts produce a few sample site options on the ancient asteroid for the team to choose from.

"I hope that we have lots of sampling sites and we have lots of candidates, but nature has a way of surprising us", Campins said. "I don't know what they will be, but there will be surprises".

Let's start with destruction; scientists estimate there is a one-in-2,700 chance of the asteroid slamming catastrophically into Earth 166 years from now. Before all that, we're sure to get some fantastic close-up pictures of the asteroid. On approaching the target, the probe reported in August of this year. According to NASA, Bennu could pass closer to Earth than the moon is in 2135, and possibly closer in the decades after.

Once it has collected both data and the samples the craft will return to Earth where scientists will be able to study the collected material in far more detail than they would be able to on a spacecraft. Astrophysics consider it as a kind of time capsule that can tell us about the distant past of our planet.

Information collected by OSIRIS-REx mission will be crucial to the budding space-mining industry and there is a large economic incentive to study an asteroid with organic material, like Bennu is thought to have. It's not a matter of if, but when.

"The OSIRIS-REx team is proud to cross another major milestone off our list-asteroid arrival".