A NASA explorer has successfully completed its 1.2 billion mile, two-year-long journey to reach the asteroid Bennu this Monday. This involved executing a maneuver that changed its trajectory, so that instead of flying towards Bennu it was flying around it.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex) currently stands 11.8 miles from the asteroid’s sun-facing surface, and will soon begin a preliminary survey of its landscape. This will involve flyovers of poles and equatorial region. At certain points during the flyovers, the probe will fly as close as four miles above the asteroid’s surface.
The mission’s objectives are to refine estimates of Bennu’s mass and spin rate, as well as generating more accurate model of its shape.
It is expected that this mission will be able to give scientists new insight into the formation of the solar system, the origin of life and how asteroids could impact the Earth. Asteroids are leftovers of the building blocks of the solar system, and can tell scientists which molecules were initially present in the solar system. This is what would help them better understand how life was formed. Furthermore, asteroids like Bennu also contain natural resources like water and metals, which future space exploration could rely on.
“As explorers, we at NASA have never shied away from the most extreme challenges in the solar system in our quest for knowledge,” said Lori Glaze, acting director for NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Now we’re at it again, working with our partners in the US and Canada to accomplish the Herculean task of bringing back to Earth a piece of the early solar system.”
This mission marks many firsts in space exploration. For starters, Bennu is the smallest object orbited by a spacecraft. This will also be the first American mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era. It is also the first study of a primitive asteroid rich in carbon and organic molecules found on Earth. It is also the first mission to explore a potentially hazardous asteroid and try to determine the factors that alter the course of an asteroid to bring it close to Earth.