If you follow space exploration missions closely, you know that NASA had launched a mission named OSIRIS-REx in September 2016 towards an asteroid named Bennu which is a 1,650-foot-wide space rock millions of kilometers away from the Earth. After two years, OSIRIS-REx has finally snapped its first photos of its target Bennu from a distance of whopping 1.4 million miles which is ten times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx mission, posted the photo of Bennu snapped on August 17 which literally shows a grainy image with a white dot of unusual shape hurtling through space and yes, that’s Bennu as it looks for more than a million kilometers away. If as goes as per the plan, the spacecraft will arrive near Bennu on December 3 after which, it will conduct a number of flybys to take measurements and observations estimating the asteroid’s mass.
OSIRIS-REx will commence circling the space rock on December 31 when it will enter its orbit thereby proclaiming it as the spacecraft to orbit the smallest object ever orbited. The reports compare the OSIRIS-REx mission with Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission which is orbiting an asteroid named Ryugu since June. Ryugu is actually six times larger in volume and twice as wide compared to Bennu which puts the latter in the smallest category.
According to the space agency, the spacecraft has been designed specifically to carry a 4.4 pound slab of rock from the rock that will be transported to a capsule sometime in 2020 and then, the spacecraft will depart from the asteroid in March 2021 and finally, the samples will be delivered in a special return capsule by September 2023 somewhere in the Utah desert. This will allow the scientists to analyze the foreign rock further.
OSIRIS-REx stands for ‘Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer’ developed on an $800 million budget. It will analyze the surface and bring back the samples that would help scientists study how the solar system and the Earth came into existence and more. Bennu is also classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA) as there is a sleek chance that it will slam into the Earth sometime in Late 22nd century that would be catastrophic. The study of this rock would provide the scientists with insights on how these giant asteroids plan out their path and which forces are involved so that a counter plan could be agreed upon in case the asteroid ever hits the Earth.
What’s more important is the carbon content of the space rock and the likelihood of water on the asteroid that could be broken down into elementary hydrogen and oxygen which can be used to set up fueling stations for future explorations. This would cut down the cost of space exploration and provide future explorers with options to top up their tanks when needed.
After closing in near the rock on December 3, the spacecraft will start descent procedure on December 31 where it will have to make precise maneuvers trying to enter a space rock which is only half the size of Ryugu and this wouldn’t be an easy feat. Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to snatch samples this October and scheduled to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in late 2020 and the data gather by Hayabusa 2 mission regarding the descent, landing, take off, and re-entry, etc will be used by the mission team of OSIRIS-REx so that they can make precise final touch down and take off without causing any potential harm to a near-billion dollars spacecraft.