NASA's OSIRIS-REx Probe Is About To Hitch A Ride On An Asteroid

Wednesday, 22 August 2018 - 1:10PM
Space
Technology
Wednesday, 22 August 2018 - 1:10PM
NASA's OSIRIS-REx Probe Is About To Hitch A Ride On An Asteroid
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Composite: NASA Goddard

The best way to learn something new about an object is to get up close and personal with it. Scientists know a fair bit about asteroids, but there is always more to discover, which is why NASA created and launched OSIRIS-REx back in September of 2016. According to recent updates, the spacecraft has begun its final approach to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, where it will spend two more years studying the space rock to unlock more clues about the origin and evolution of the universe.



The name OSIRIS-REx is a reference to the Egyptian deity Osiris, but it is also a complex acronym that defines the craft's mission: Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer. In a tweet late last week, the OSIRIS-REx team announced that the asteroid-sampling probe had hit a milestone and was beginning its approach, but as Space.com points out (and the official timeline confirms), that phase of the mission involves another 1.2 million miles. At this rate, the craft is not expected to enter Bennu's orbit until December 3. Next comes the preliminary survey, a detailed survey, recon, rehearsal, and finally the sample collection around June in 2020. OSIRIS-REx will then leave Bennu in 2021 and return a capsule to Earth with the asteroid samples by September 2023.

Credit: University of Arizona

In addition to learning more about the origins of our universe, scientists believe that by studying Bennu they will be able to better predict and prevent its possible future collision with Earth. OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta previously said that Bennu colliding with Earth would not destroy our planet because there is not enough energy for that kind of impact, but it is still something they are keeping an eye on given the asteroid's classification as "potentially dangerous." "Our uncertainties will shrink, so that will allow us to recalculate the impact probability," Lauretta said in 2016 prior to the launch of OSIRIS-REx. "We don't know which direction it'll go. It could go down, because we just eliminated a bunch of possible keyholes that Bennu may hit. Or it may go up, because in the area that's left we have a higher concentration of keyholes compared to the overall area of the uncertainty plane." 

Data collected during the mission will paint a much clearer picture and give us plenty of time to warn Earthlings of the 22nd century of what's coming.
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