NASA's OSIRIS-REx is now orbiting closer to Bennu, an asteroid near Earth believed to be an ancient relic from the early days of the solar system.
On June 12, the spacecraft carried out another maneuver that brought it to only about 680 meters above the surface of the asteroid. It broke its previous record, which was approximately 1.3 kilometers away from the object.
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, has set the record for the "closest orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft."
OSIRIS-REx Enters New Phase
The move signals the beginning of the spacecraft's new phase, called Orbital B. OSIRIS-REx will remain close to the object until the second week of August, photographing the horizon of the asteroid. The goal is to investigate the particles that the asteroid has been ejecting into space.
For the next five weeks, the spacecraft will also use its scientific instruments to create a map of the asteroid. The data collected during the Orbital B phase will be used by scientists to determine four sites where OSIRIS-REx can potentially retrieve a sample to be brought back to Earth.
Later this year, the spacecraft will transition to Orbital C for further particle observations. During this period, it will go back to about 1.3 kilometers away from the surface of the asteroid.
Secrets From The Bennu Asteroid
OSIRIS-REx was launched in 2016 and arrived at Bennu in 2018. The mission of the spacecraft is to study the asteroid and fly close enough to its rocky surface to retrieve a sample.
Sample collection is scheduled for the summer of 2020. OSIRIS-REx will deliver a piece of Bennu to Earth in 2023.
Bennu's present-day chemistry and mineralogy are believed to have already been established within 10 million years of the formation of the solar system, which means that it can give scientists a peek into the distant past. It likely broke off from a larger carbon-based asteroid in the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter before drifting closer to Earth.
The asteroid might also contain the same organic materials that might have been responsible for the existence of life on Earth.
The asteroid makes one orbit around the sun every 1.2 years. It makes a close approach to Earth every six years and has a 1 in a 2,700 chance of collission with the planet in the late 22nd century.