Nasa probe closes in on asteroid that could collide with Earth

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

Launched on September 8, 2016 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, OSIRIS-REx has traveled more than two billion kilometers to the asteroid and will bring a small sample back to Earth for study. The spacecraft has been traveling through the solar system en route to its target Bennu for almost 27 months now and will stay about 12 miles away from the asteroid.

Bennu - named after a mythological Egyptian deity by a third-grade contest victor - is one of the most hazardous asteroids known to NASA because of its large size and orbit.

Once the NASA mission has successfully collected its spacedust from Bennu, the sample will be kept in a canister and returned to Earth in 2023, touching down in the Utah desert in late September, NASA said. To that end, the College of Optical Sciences, which helped design some of OSIRIS-REx's cameras in conjunction with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Steward Observatory, recently received a $20 million endowment. "The low-gravity environment is one of the foremost challenges in conducting this mission", Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a NASA video.

Bennu, a rocky mass roughly a half a kilometre wide and shaped like a giant acorn, orbits the sun at roughly the same distance as Earth and is thought to be rich in carbon-based organic molecules dating back to the earliest days of the solar system.

During the five-second maneuver, compressed nitrogen gas will shoot into the collector, stirring up and lifting small rocks and soil. Along the way, the spacecraft performed a flyby of Earth on September 22, 2017 for a gravity assist to place the craft on its final trajectory to Bennu.

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It is the first US attempt to gather asteroid samples for return to Earth, something only Japan has accomplished so far. At the time of the mission's asteroid selection in 2005, there were only 192 asteroids classified as Near Earth Objects that met NASA's proximity requirements.

For two years after the return, the sample will be cataloged and analyzed. Here, scientists will be able to study it with an array of instruments that will provide a huge leap in our understanding of asteroids.

From the end of February to early June 2019, OSIRIS-REx will start two detailed survey phases which will generate chemical composition and digital terrain maps along with global image mosaics and at the end of the process will have enough information to select up to 12 candidate sampling sites. Though small asteroids can rotate very quickly, Bennu has a diameter just a bit bigger than the height of the Empire State Building and rotates relatively slowly, each 4.3 hours. Water, another vital component to the evolution of life, may also be trapped in the asteroid's minerals. Bennu may be on collision course with Earth in the future. Achievement unlocked and "we have arrived", NASA announced on its official Twitter account. With two years of flying already under its belt, expectations are high for the probe, but first NASA has to make sure it arrives safe and sound, and that's what today is all about.

On the appointed day, OSIRIS-REx will spiral down and tap Bennu with its Touch-And-Go-Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), sucking up at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of material. This could also explain how it ended up as a near-Earth asteroid. These samples will help scientists answer questions about the formation of Earth and our solar system. "When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system".

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