NASA's OSIRIS-REx probe arrives at asteroid Bennu


Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

During a survey lasting one and a half years, the explorer will touch down on the surface up to three times to retrieve rocks totaling about 2 kilograms.

Reuters reported that from that stage, the spacecraft will begin gradually tightening its orbit around the asteroid, spiraling to within just 6 feet of its surface.

The mission - which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer - is NASA's first asteroid sample return mission. The room was utterly silent.

Exactly one week after NASA landed a spacecraft on Mars, the Osiris-Rex craft's odometer showed 1.2bn miles (2bn km) travelled. It is not impossible that asteroids like it delivered the building blocks of life to the early Earth-the mission could help us investigate this theory.

"OSIRIS-REx seeks answers to the questions that are central to the human experience: Where did we come from?" The space rock is of great interest to scientists because it is believed to be a piece that broke off from a larger, carbon-rich asteroid between 700 million and 2 billion years ago.

NASA's first asteroid-sampling mission has arrived at its destination, but it still has a lot of prep work ahead before the spacecraft can bite into the space rock.

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"Now we're at it again, working with our partners in the USA and Canada to accomplish the Herculean task of bringing back to Earth a piece of the early solar system". Those like Bennu contain natural resources, such as water, organics and metals.

Once that's done, and assuming OSIRIS-REx doesn't hit the surface, the spacecraft will begin the long voyage back to Earth. To their delight, newly acquired close-ups of the asteroid closely match their predictions.

"The OSIRIS-REx team is proud to cross another major milestone off our list - asteroid arrival", said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. In the coming weeks and months, his team aims to get detailed measurements of the asteroid's shape, density and gravity that will allow scientists to fine-tune how they orbit it. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations.

OSIRIS-REx is in no hurry.

Asteroid Bennu was first spotted in 1999. This ensures that the solar radiation pressure remains constant, so engineers can make sure they continuously counteract it. That sample, assuming everything goes according to plan, will be returned to researchers on Earth in 2023.

The spacecraft executed a maneuver to transition from flying toward Bennu to flying around the distant asteroid on Monday - its 1.6-billion-mile journey officially complete. TAGSAM is the heart of the spacecraft's mission. McMahon explained that as OSIRIS-REx brushes past Bennu this time, the asteroid will exert a minute gravitational pull on the spacecraft. Once a site is selected, the spacecraft will land for about five seconds to collect a sample of the surface material, using a burst of nitrogen gas to liberate material from the surface into the sampler head. Then it must turn around and retrace its path back home.

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