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Tues., Oct. 20 at 5:00 p.m. EDT

Story at a glance

  • A NASA spacecraft is scheduled to reach out and touch an asteroid it has been orbiting.
  • The spacecraft is called Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx for short.
  • OSIRIS-REx will land on a section of the asteroid Bennu called Nightingale.

Two hundred million miles from Earth, a NASA spacecraft is orbiting an asteroid with material from the early solar system that could contain the answers to the origin of life on Earth. And for the first time, the explorer is reaching out its hand to touch the surface. 

"It's a historic first mission for NASA, returning an asteroid sample, and it's hard," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, during a Monday press conference. 

At around 1:50 p.m. on Tuesday OSIRIS-REx, which is about the size of a 15-passenger van, left its orbit to touch the asteroid Bennu, which is about as tall as the Empire State building.  NASA is broadcasting a live stream animation of the "Touch-And-Go" maneuver until the spacecraft's back-away burn, followed by a live broadcast at 5 p.m.


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Why all this buzz over an asteroid? Well, besides the “origins of life” part, Bennu could potentially threaten Earth late in the next century, according to a NASA release, and has a 1-in-2,700 chance of impacting the planet. And while that may not be the kind of odds you'd bet on, Bennu is more than 4.5 billion years old and contains a lot of carbon, classified as a B-type asteroid. 

Besides the impact, scientists are also interested in the potential information they could find in the asteroid. Known as a “rubble-pile" asteroid, Bennu is full of holes that have been protected from the sun, which means chemicals and rocks could have survived there from the birth of the solar system. It's also likely to be rich in platinum and gold, fitting for an asteroid named after an ancient Egyptian deity by Michael Puzio, a nine-year-old boy from North Carolina who won a competition to name the asteroid. 


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"Bennu is almost a Rosetta Stone out there, and it tells the history of our Earth and solar system during the last billions of years," Zurbuchen said. "Bennu has presented a lot of challenges, but the ingenuity of the team has enabled us to get where we are." 

It’s not going to be easy. A rare active asteroid, it's one of the first that humans have observed from a spacecraft, so scientists are still learning new things — including that sunlight can crack rocks on Bennu. Recent imagery of the asteroid's surface shows it’s covered in massive boulders, however, which means OSIRIS-REx has to land within an area of less than 100 square yards, or about five parking spaces, called Nightingale. 

"Bennu has challenged OSIRIS-REx with extraordinarily rugged terrain," said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a release. "The team has adapted by employing a more accurate, though more complex, optical navigation technique to be able to get into these small areas. We'll also arm OSIRIS-REx with the capability to recognize if it is on course to touch a hazard within or adjacent to the site and wave-off before that happens."  


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Published on Oct 20, 2020