For the First Time, a NASA Spacecraft Has Arrived at an Asteroid — With Plans to Get Samples

December 4, 2018

By Chabeli Herrera

ORLANDO, Fla. — After two years of traveling millions of miles through the solar system, a small spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral is reaching its destination: an asteroid that could unlock the truth about the origin of life.

The spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, rendezvoused with the asteroid, named Bennu, shortly after noon Monday, marking a major milestone in the seven-year, round-trip journey to bring back small samples from the asteroid to Earth.

“We have arrived,” shouted Javi Cerna, an OSIRIS-REx telecom engineer with Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which built the spacecraft, at the company’s mission control in Colorado as the signal arrived on Earth indicating OSIRIS-REx’s arrival.

The mission chose Bennu because it formed along with the universe 4.5 billion years ago, meaning its surface could offer clues as to the building blocks of life. It’s also relatively close to Earth, coming within about 186,000 miles of it every six years.

“It’s been a long time coming to the arrival,” said Heather Enos, the deputy principal investigator with the University of Arizona, who has been working on the mission for nearly a decade. “We are really looking forward to this next chapter of the mission. “

After Monday’s arrival, OSIRIS-REx won’t touch down on Bennu yet.

The spacecraft will come within 13 miles of the asteroid, before spending more than a year surveying Bennu at a closer distance and then picking a location for the sample retrieval in 2020.

Once it does arrive on the surface, it’ll use its mechanical arm to release a burst of nitrogen gas, and suck up rocks and surface soil. OSIRIS-REx is expected to collect between 2 and 70 ounces of samples before arriving back on Earth in September 2023.

In August, OSIRIS-REx — short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer — snapped its first picture of Bennu and sent it back to Earth. The mission is NASA’s first collecting samples from an asteroid. Japan has already collected samples of an asteroid in the past.

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©2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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