Bennu: Osiris-Rex NASA spacecraft meets with asteroid today.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will rendezvous with Asteroid Bennu today to carry out the US space agency’s first-ever asteroid sample retrieval mission.
NASA’s space probe is expected to arrive at its distant target today at around 5pm GMT (12pm EST). The mission will be briefly streamed live across YouTube, Facebook Live, Ustream and NASA’s website. You can watch it unfold live in the embedded live stream below, courtesy of NASA. The asteroid approach will be broadcast online from 4.45pm to 5.15pm GMT (11.45am to 12.15pm EST).
What is the NASA OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu?
Today’s broadcast marks the end of an 815-day-long venture through space towards the large asteroid.
NASA’s goal with the OSIRIS-REx mission is to collect rocky samples from a so-called Near Earth Asteroid for study back on Earth.
Asteroid Bennu was specifically chosen for this mission because scientists believe it is one of the oldest, closest and most well-preserved asteroids in the solar system.
Studying Bennu’s composition could hold the keys to unlocking the earliest secrets of the universe and how life started on Earth.
NASA said: “We know from having studied Bennu through Earth- and space-based telescopes that it is a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang.
“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.”
The space rock has an estimated diameter of 1,614ft (492m) and spins around its orbit in the same way the Earth does.
Spinning asteroids are incredibly tricky to land on but Bennu’s size makes it an easier target for landing – it revolves once every 4.3 hours.
OSIRIS-REx blasted off towards the asteroid on September 8, 2016, and has already covered billions of miles on its lonesome voyage.
But the space probe will not touch down on Bennu until next year, when it dips down to collect regolith rock dust samples.
NASA said: “Going to an asteroid – especially a small one that has never been visited before – is different than going to a planet like Mars.
“When OSIRIS-REx arrives on Monday, the spacecraft won’t land or go into orbit around Bennu yet.
“It will execute a small engine burn marking the end of its journey toward Bennu and setting it up to operate around the asteroid.”
NASA hopes to collect its samples sometime around mid-2020.
The space probe will then return to Earth in 2023 and drop its samples for collection in a capsule.
Retired NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao said: “It’s going to take a couple of years – because it’s so far away – to get there and then once it’s there, it will use its suite of sensors and cameras to take images and other data.
“The sometime around 2020, it’s going to actually extend an 11ft arm to try and scoop a piece of the dust off of the asteroid and actually bring it back to Earth.
“So, sometime around 2023 we’ll see the samples return under parachute in a return capsule and it will give us an idea what the early universe was like.
“Hopefully, we will get some good samples and good chemical composition analysis and other data from this spacecraft.”