A spacecraft from U.S. space agency NASA is set to touch an asteroid, break off a sample and bring it back to Earth for the first time during a history-making mission that culminates Tuesday.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft — an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer — is set to attempt a touch-and-go sample collection on the asteroid Bennu later Tuesday afternoon.
Starting at just before 2 p.m. Eastern time, the spacecraft will begin its set of maneuvers to slowly descend to the Nightingale landing spot on the surface of the asteroid to collect the sample. The event is expected to take more than four hours.
In a statement on its website, NASA says OSIRIS-REx is about the size of a large passenger van, has been orbit orbiting the asteroid since 2018 and is now more than 321 million kilometers from Earth. Scientists are interested in Bennu because they believe it contains material from the early solar system and may contain the molecular precursors to life and Earth’s oceans.
The asteroid is about as tall as the Empire State Building and could potentially threaten Earth late in the next century, with a 1‐in‐2,700 chance of affecting our planet during one of its close approaches.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will orbit the asteroid until next year, when it will begin its journey home to Earth. It is expected to land with the sample in 2023.