In September 2016, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft left Earth on a two billion kilometer journey to Bennu. The diamond-shaped Bennu, an asteroid just 500 meters across, has been in scientists’ sights for quite some time.
CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.
“This is the first time we will orbit a small celestial body,” said Sandy Freund, OSIRIS-REx’s Mission Operations Manager. “It is also the first asteroid sample return mission for the United States.”
Freund leads the team at the aerospace company Lockheed Martin that helped the spacecraft sidle up close to Bennu earlier this week.
“We have arrived!” announced a team member in Mission Control, thrusting his arms in the air.
For those involved with the mission, now the real fun begins.
“We want to learn as much as we can about the asteroid and we want to make sure that we have selected a site that is safe, scientifically interesting, gives us the best chance of getting the largest sample,” Freund said.
If all goes according to plan, in July 2020, OSIRIS-REx will hover right above Bennu and, using its sample acquisition arm, suck up at least 60 grams of dirt and rock. That delicate touch-and-go maneuver will last a mere five seconds. The sample is expected to be rich in carbon and organic molecules. Bennu, which orbits the sun between Earth and Mars, could well resemble what Earth looked like when life began here.
“So it’s a pristine sample from the beginning of the solar system so we can really find the original building blocks that made up our planets,” said Mark Fisher, Chief Spacecraft Engineer.
Studying Bennu, scientists hope to learn more about asteroids’ trajectories to prevent possible collisions with Earth, which this one is at risk of doing in the 22nd century.
“We’re interested in understanding where near-Earth asteroids are and which ones are coming close to Earth, which Bennu does, and if they’re coming close to Earth, how we might be able to deflect them to protect ourselves,” said Jay McMahon, with OSIRIS-REx’s Radio Science Working Group.
This mission could also tell us more about the resource potential of asteroids, and further a case for space mining.
“That we could lasso an asteroid and bring it back to Earth and put it in orbit around Earth and mine it,” said Stephen Petranek, a science journalist. “It’s the beginning of the commercialization of space.
A Japanese probe is expected to return samples from a different space rock in 2020. OSIRIS-REx is due to drop its cargo back on Earth in 2023. But the next step is getting the spacecraft orbiting around Bennu – a maneuver scientists hope to complete this coming New Year’s Eve.