NASA Sends Spacecraft Asteroid-Hunting To Gather Information

Hussein Elghoul

NASA's asteroid-chasing spacecraft swung by Earth on Friday on its way to a space rock.

The craft, known as Osiris-Rex, was launched one year ago and passed within 10,711 miles (17,237 kilometers) of the home planet early Friday afternoon. Passing above Antarctica, it used Earth's gravity as a slingshot to put it on a path toward the asteroid Bennu.

Osiris-Rex is expected to reach the small, roundish asteroid next year and, by 2020, be able to collect some gravel from the rock for its return to Earth. If all goes well, scientists should get the samples in 2023.

During Friday's flyby, the spacecraft zoomed by at approximately 19,000 mph (31,000 kph). NASA took precautions to ensure Osiris-Rex, which is about the size of an SUV, did not collide with any satellites.

Bennu is just 1,640 feet (500 meters) or so across and circles the Sun in an orbit slightly wider than that of Earth. Osiris-Rex will go into orbit around the asteroid and look for the best spot for grabbing a few handfuls of the bite-size bits of rock. The craft is expected to be able to hover like a hummingbird as a mechanical arm briefly rests on the surface and sucks in samples stirred up by nitrogen gas thrusters.

From the University of Arizona, Dante Lauretta, who is the chief scientist for Osiris-Rex, expressed his excitement about the mission thus far in a tweet on Friday.

Christina Richey, Osiris-Rex deputy program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., also has high hopes for the mission.

"We'll have some small-level science but it's primarily for us about instrument testing. The whole goal is to make sure all the instruments are up and ready to go for rendezvous."

Scientists say the purpose of this entire mission is to learn more about how life began in the universe. It is believed that the ancient asteroid may hold clues to the origin of life. The space rock, believed to have formed over 4 billion years ago, is a remnant of the solar system's building blocks.

Harold Connolly, a geology professor at Rowan University in New Jersey, heads up the team that will evaluate the sample when the craft returns in six years. The professor is counting on the instruments to find the right spot to take a sample that will come back to Earth.

"We have the ability to go down to sub-centimeter resolution (with the cameras) while in orbit. And that kind of resolution will provide us a level of understanding and confidence that the material in this particular area or that particular area of the asteroid is something we can actually collect," he said.

From what he saw this weekend, he feels strongly about the prospects of Osiris-Rex.

"Confidence comes in the fact that the instruments, the spacecraft is functioning perfectly. That the team supporting the whole process, the devotion is all functioning perfectly," he said.

This is the first U.S. attempt to bring back samples from an asteroid. Japan already has visited an asteroid and returned some specks.

[Featured Image by Conceptual Image Lab/Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA/AP Images]