OSIRIS-REx NASA spacecraft meets with asteroid today.

Copyright Getty Images NASA/JOEL KOWSKY

OSIRIS-REx TWO YEARS AND 2 months after it launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, NASA’s $800-million mission to the asteroid belt.

Between Mars Mars Jupiter will reach a pivotal moment Monday, when the agency’s OSIRIS-REx craft is slated to rendezvous with its scientific target: a dark, round, carbon-rich asteroid named Bennu.

At fewer than five hundred meters in diameter, Bennu is a little solar-system body with huge scientific potential: Astronomers suspect the asteroid’s rocky composition has remained more or less unchanged since it formed some 4.5 billion years ago.

Collecting and analyzing a sample of the asteroid might tell scientists a lot about the origins of our solar system, its planets, and the source of organic molecules which will have given rise to life on Earth.

But before anyone can sift through a sample from Bennu, NASA must 1st collect and retrieve it. Doing so would require several major steps, the first of that is slated to kick off Monday, at around 9:00 am Pt, when OSIRIS-REx (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) will reach Bennu and start its months-long process of surveying the asteroid’s surface.

You’ll watch the arrival on NASA TV (above), where the agency are broadcasting live from mission control between 11:45 am and 12:15 pm ET.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration will air an arrival preview program starting at 11:15 am ET.

After arriving at Bennu, OSIRIS-REx can spend several weeks maneuvering around the asteroid, collecting information on its mass, topography, and composition.

The craft will begin its survey at a remove of roughly twelve miles, and culminate during a series of low-pass flyovers some 800 feet above the asteroid’s surface before entering the asteroid’s orbit on New Years’ Eve.

If NASA is successful , Bennu will become the littlest object the agency has ever orbited.

The goal at that point will be to identify a secure and scientifically promising sample site. Notice we said “sample” site—not “landing” site. OSIRIS-REx will never truly set down on the asteroid’s surface.

Instead, in a series of maneuvers presently slated for mid-2020, the spacecraft will swoop toward the surface, hovering simply close enough to collect a sample of Bennu’s surface with its 10-foot-long robotic arm.

OSIRIS-REx’s mission planners aim to get a sample of at least two ounces, though the craft is designed to accommodate as many as 4.4 pounds of space dust.

Either way, it will be the biggest such sample NASA has collected since the Apollo missions in the Nineteen Seventies.

Assuming all has gone well up to that point, OSIRIS-REx will depart Bennu in the spring of 2021 to start its two-and-a-half-year journey back to Earth.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: Before OSIRIS-REx sets out on the come back leg of its trip, it will 1st need to dance with Bennu for a couple of years. That dance begins today.

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