Sun, Aug 26, 2018 - Page 4 News List

NASA craft approaches asteroid for dust sample

SURFACE STUDY:The spacecraft has already taken a picture of the cosmic body, which poses a slight risk of hitting Earth in 2135

AFP, TAMPA, Florida

Two years after launching from Florida, a NASA spacecraft is closing in on asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of space dust.

The spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, has even snapped its first, blurry photograph of the cosmic body, which is about the size of a small mountain, about 500m in diameter.

The spacecraft is designed to circle Bennu, and reach out with a robotic arm to “high-five” its surface, then return the sample it collects to Earth in 2023.

The first images of Bennu were taken on Aug. 17 at a distance of 2.3 million kilometers from the US$800 million spacecraft.

“This is the closest we have even been to Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona.

“This is significant in that we are now in the vicinity of the asteroid, closer than we have ever been even during the close approaches of the asteroid to the Earth,” Lauretta said.

Bennu was chosen from about 500,000 asteroids in the solar system, because it orbits close to Earth’s path around the sun, it is the right size for scientific study, and is one of the oldest asteroids, NASA said.

Astronomers say it poses a slight risk — a one in 2,700 chance — of colliding with Earth in 2135.

The OSIRIS-REx mission is not the first to ever visit an asteroid and attempt a sample return — Japan has done it before and Europe has landed on a comet.

However, it is the first asteroid-sample-return mission for NASA, and it aims to bring back the biggest sample ever, about 60g.

The US men who walked on the moon during the Apollo era of the 1960s and 1970s collected and carried back to Earth 382kg of moon rocks.

In December, OSIRIS-REx is to begin a detailed survey of the asteroid’s surface, which NASA has defined as “arrival” at the asteroid.

Orbital insertion is expected on Dec. 31.

The sample is to be collected in July 2020.

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