NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Probe Snaps Its First Photo Of Asteroid Bennu

NASA

As Japan’s Hayabusa-2 mission to asteroid Ryugu has just reached a turning point with the announcement of the landing spots for the sample recovery attempts, the Inquisitr reported earlier today, NASA’s own asteroid-sampling mission is also making important progress.

After tracking asteroid Bennu across the vastness of space since 2016, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has reached a new milestone this month and is almost at its destination, NASA announced today.

Short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, the space probe set out on its journey on September 8, 2016, and is tasked with grabbing a sample from asteroid Bennu and returning it to Earth for analysis.

According to Space.com, the spacecraft has officially begun the “asteroid operations” phase of its mission on August 17, when it entered the final stage of its approach toward the near-Earth space rock.

“Today, after a nearly two-year journey, I begin Asteroid Operations and my final approach toward Bennu! #AreWeThereYet,” officials of the OSIRIS-REx mission wrote on Twitter last week.

Currently found about 1.2 million miles (two million kilometers) from its target, OSIRIS-REx has already started imaging the asteroid for the very first time.

The spacecraft’s asteroid operations campaign kicked off with a historic snapshot of Bennu, captured by the probe’s PolyCam instrument from a distance of 1.4 million miles (2.2 million kilometers).

Unveiled today by the space agency, this first-ever photo of Bennu reveals the asteroid “as a moving object against the stars in the constellation Serpens,” NASA wrote in the image description.

OSIRIS-REx “is now preparing to conduct the necessary approach maneuvers to rendezvous with Bennu on December 3,” NASA stated earlier this week, noting that more details on the probe’s upcoming activities will be made public during a press conference scheduled for today.

This is NASA’s first sample return mission targeting an asteroid. Just like the Hayabusa-2 mission, OSIRIS-REx plans to study its target from orbit — in its case, for a period of more than two years — and eventually swoop down to the asteroid’s surface to snag a sizeable chunk of the space rock and deliver it back to Earth.

Nestled some 54 million miles from our planet, Bennu is a potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroid that could end up on a collision course with us sometime in the next century, the Inquisitr previously reported.

The space rock is half the size of asteroid Ryugu, measuring just 1,640 feet (500 meters) in diameter. This makes it “the smallest object that any spacecraft has ever orbited,” notes Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Until Bennu becomes potentially problematic in 2135, NASA intends to study the carbon-rich asteroid to learn more about its properties.

“The mission represents a valuable opportunity to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the sources of water and organic molecules on Earth, and the hazards and resources in near-Earth space,” the agency explained in a news release.

Commenting on the mission’s latest progress, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona in Tucson revealed what’s in store for the intrepid space probe.

“Now that OSIRIS-REx is close enough to observe Bennu, the mission team will spend the next few months learning as much as possible about Bennu’s size, shape, surface features, and surroundings before the spacecraft arrives at the asteroid.”

After the spacecraft reaches Bennu later this year, it will spend the rest of 2018 performing a series of flybys of the asteroid’s poles and equator, coming as close as 4.4 miles (seven kilometers) from the space rock, in order to glean more data on its mass and surface features.

Once the mission team learns more about the virtually unknown asteroid, the scientists can come up with a plan to touch down on Bennu and eventually choose a landing site for sample collection.

The recovery of the asteroid sample is slated for early July 2020. In March 2021, the OSIRIS-REx probe will head back home with its precious cargo, secured in a Sample Return Capsule. The capsule is expected to land in the Utah desert in September 2023, seven years after the probe launched into space.