NASA’s Osiris-REx Spacecraft Reaches Asteroid Bennu and is Set to Collect Surface Samples 

Bennu is likely rich in organic molecules, which are made of chains of carbon bonded with atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements in a chemical recipe that makes all known living things. Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has reached the asteroid Bennu after a two-year-long journey through space, after blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 2016.

The spacecraft has traveled more than more than a billion miles.

The Spacecraft has a radical mission: study the asteroid’s surface, and return a sample of at least 2.1 ounces from its surface back to Earth for further studies.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx approach to Bennu. The animation above shows the spacecraft's approach to the asteroid, starting with data from August 17 when it was over 1,300,000 miles from Bennu, to data obtained on November 27, when it was located just 40 miles away. Image Credit: NASA
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx approach to Bennu. The animation above shows the spacecraft’s approach to the asteroid, starting with data from August 17 when it was over 1,300,000 miles from Bennu, to data obtained on November 27, when it was located just 40 miles away. Image Credit: NASA

The samples and data collected by OSIRIS-REx will help scientists understand the origin of our solar system, and perhaps unlock the secrets of life, and how it evolved on Earth.

Scientists estimate that Bennu formed around 4.5 billion years ago.

“Bennu is a leftover fragment from the tumultuous formation of the solar system,” NASA explains.

“Some of the mineral fragments inside Bennu could be older than the solar system. These microscopic grains of dust could be the same ones that spewed from dying stars and eventually coalesced to make the Sun and its planets nearly 4.6 billion years ago,” the agency added.

The spacecraft is set to spend a year orbiting the asteroid before dropping down near its surface so it can obtain samples of dirt and rock from the surface.

To obtain surface samples of the asteroid, the spacecraft will hover over the asteroid surface and ‘will be sent down at a very slow and gently’ 4 inches (10 cm) per second.

Once the spacecraft is ready to collect the surface sample, it will approach the surface of Bennu and hover above it like a hummingbird, with only its mechanical arm touching the asteroid and collecting rock samples.

Today marked the day that the spacecraft performed a 20-second burn that put it on the right trajectory around the asteroid.

The spacecraft has now successfully traveled more than a billion miles since it blasted off from Florida in September 2016. Back in January of 2018, OSIRIS-REx snapped an image of Earth and the moon in their ‘orbital dance’.

This animation showing NASA's OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft (in red) was composed with observational data from the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory located on Mount Graham in Arizona. Images taken in September of 2017.
This animation showing NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft (in red) was composed with observational data from the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory located on Mount Graham in Arizona. Images taken in September of 2017.

If everything goes to plan, the spacecraft is expected to return with samples from the asteroid’s surface in September of 2023. The spacecraft has sent a number of photos throughout the course of its journey, revealing never-before-seen glimpses of one of the most interesting asteroids in our solar system.

The asteroid, Bennu, is said to be a carbon-rich space-rock that most likely contains organic materials or molecular precursors to life.

“Analyzing a sample from Bennu will help planetary scientists better understand the role asteroids may have played in delivering life-forming compounds to Earth,” NASA explained.

The Astoeird could help us understand the secrets of life, as well as how likely it is that life has developed elsewhere in the universe.

Bennu is likely rich in organic molecules, which are made of chains of carbon bonded with atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements in a chemical recipe that makes all known living things. Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid,” scientists explained.

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