It’s a giant leap for mankind.
At 2:43 p.m. EST (7:43 GMT) on December 31, 2018 when the world was getting ready to say goodbye to 2018, and welcome a new year, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft was busy getting ready to enter into orbit around asteroid Bennu — making history and setting new records for the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft and the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft.
NASA hailed this historic achievement as “a leap for humanity” because no other spacecraft has ever “orbited so close to such a small cosmic, one with gravity barely enough to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit.”
“The gravity of Bennu is so small, forces like solar radiation and thermal pressure from Bennu’s surface become much more relevant and can push the spacecraft around in its orbit much more than if it were orbiting around Earth or Mars, where gravity is by far the most dominant force,” explained Dan Wibben, maneuver and trajectory design lead.
Watch a quick recap of my December, including the milestone I reached today: going into orbit around Bennu for the first time! ➡️ https://t.co/fwL3FEEjhO
— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) December 31, 2018
Now that the spacecraft is orbiting the potentially hazardous asteroid, it will start collecting data and images of the space rock.
At about 11.8 miles (19 kilometers) from Bennu’s Sun-facing surface, OSIRIS-REx will begin a preliminary survey of the asteroid explained NASA.
OSIRIS-REx will begin flyovers of Bennu’s north pole, equatorial region, and south pole, and during its flyby’s it is expected to get as close as nearly 4 miles (7 kilometers) above the asteroid’s surface.
The $ 800 million unmanned spacecraft was launched two years ago from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and arrived on December 3 at its destination, some 110 million kilometers away.
An entire journey in one frame… My NavCam1 imager captured this shot of Earth, the Moon, and Bennu before I went into orbit.
— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) January 4, 2019
NASA plans for OSIRIS-REx to orbit Bennu until mid-February, using a set of five scientific instruments to map the asteroid in high resolution to help scientists decide precisely where to obtain samples from.
The spacecraft will eventually lower down to the surface of the asteroid, and, using a mechanical arm, collect soil samples from the ancient asteroid, in what has been dubbed as a delicate ‘cosmic high-five’.
Then, in 2020, the spacecraft will begin its journey back to Earth and transport the precious, never-before-seen material to our planet where scientists will await eagerly to study it.
“As explorers, we at NASA have never shied away from the most extreme challenges in the solar system in our quest for knowledge,” hailed Lori Glaze, acting director for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
“Now we’re at it again, working with our partners in the U.S. and Canada to accomplish the Herculean task of bringing back to Earth a piece of the early solar system.”