Science

NASA’s Asteroid-Sampling Probe Goes To Work

NASA's Asteroid-Sampling Probe OSIRIS-REx
By NASA/GSFC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
NASA’s asteroid-sampling probe, OSIRIS-REx, is starting its work from afar on the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. After the two-year journey to the 1,640-foot wide space rock, it’s time to learn more about it and potentially enhance our knowledge about asteroids in general.

OSIRIS-REx flew relatively close to the asteroid last month, but it wasn’t close enough to begin scientific studies on the asteroid.

“Today, after a nearly two-year journey, I begin Asteroid Operations and my final approach toward Bennu! #AreWeThereYet,”  the mission team wrote in a Twitter post last month.

OSIRIS-REx was launched toward Bennu in September 2016 and is now close enough for scientists to use it to begin studying the asteroid, according to a Sept. 11 Twitter announcement from the team members working on the mission. Dante Lauretta, a professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is serving as principal investigator for the mission.

“Big day for @OSIRISREx — we start our first science observations — searching for dust plumes around Bennu,” Lauretta said via Twitter yesterday.

NASA’s asteroid-sampling probe needs to capture data on Bennu’s dust environment in order to safely approach the asteroid to be able to study it from closer up. It began its analysis from afar. According to the space agency, the spacecraft is scheduled to reach the asteroid on Dec. 3 and begin orbiting the space rock by Dec. 31.

OSIRIS-REx is short for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource, Identification, Security – Regoliath Explorer.” NASA’s asteroid-sampling probe will continue studying the space rock for a while from orbit. However, it is expected that in the mid-2020s, the probe will land on the surface of the asteroid and grab a sample of it. In September 2023, the spacecraft is expected to bring the rock back to Earth in a specially-designed return capsule so scientists can study it in the lab.

An international team of scientists will be working on this cosmic rock. They’ll try to learn more about the early days of our solar system and the role of carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu, which may have delivered to Earth water and other chemical components that are considered to be the building blocks of life. The rock sample may also play a role in attracting asteroid miners, enabling them to determine the resource potential of Bennu and other similar asteroids.

The $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission should greatly contribute to other efforts too, like planetary defense. NASA’s asteroid-sampling probe should give scientists a better understanding of the amount of force Bennu and other potentially dangerous asteroids could trigger as they hurtle through space and possibly even toward Earth one day.

The asteroid Bennu itself is hazardous, as there is a small chance that it will hit Earth sometime in the next century. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is not the only asteroid-sampling spacecraft, as Japan’s space agency also has a similar spacecraft. JAXA sent its Hayabusa 2 probe toward the asteroid Ryugu, and right now it’s practicing its first landing maneuver, which is set to take place in October.