What's Next for NASA's OSIRIS-REx Probe at Asteroid Bennu?

Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

The spacecraft, which has spent the last two years traveling to the space rock known as Bennu, will finally meet its target today, and NASA will be live streaming the event so we can all enjoy their excitement.

Bennu is estimated to be just over 1,600 feet (500 meters) across.

OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) launched in September of 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft will spend a year surveying Bennu before collecting a sample that will be returned to Earth for analysis.

The chances of Bennu striking earth are still a fraction of a per cent.

For the past two years, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has sailed across the solar system by the light of the stars.

Now, at about 11.8 miles (19 kilometers) from Bennu's Sun-facing surface, OSIRIS-REx will begin a preliminary survey of the asteroid. This will help scientists understand how much of a danger the asteroid presents to Earth and to draw up potential plans for diverting or deflecting Bennu if it is determined to be on a path for impact with the Earth.

"Our CSIRO team in Canberra and our two sister Deep Space Network stations around the world in Spain and the United States will be with the mission every step of the way".

OSIRIS-REx has a camera suite, a laser altimeter for 3D mapping, a thermal emission spectrometer to take temperature and mineral content and spectrometers to measure X-rays, almost infrared and visible light.

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"The spacecraft is already in Bennu's gravitational* influence and, according to NASA's calculations, is set to officially arrive in orbit, just 2km above the asteroid, on Tuesday at around 4am AEDT*", CSIRO* tracking station spokesman Glen Nagle said.

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to return the sample to Earth in September 2023.

Bennu is due to make a close pass of Earth in about 150 years possibly involving a collision.

Asteroids could even serve as fuel stations for robotic and human missions if we can unlock the hydrogen and oxygen inside them, NASA said.

In addition, it is larger than 200 meters and so does not spin rapidly (which would complicate sample retrieval), and it is a primitive carbon-rich leftover from the beginnings of the solar system, with organic molecules, volatiles, and amino acids that could tell us how life began on Earth. That water or the asteroid's metals might one day serve as useful resources, so space explorers wouldn't need to bring these heavy materials with them. Once back on Earth, scientists will be able to study a sample untouched since the early Solar System.

It kicked off its year-long investigation on the carbon-rich asteroid which may impact Earth 200 years away and lend clues to how life evolved in early days of our planet, Xinhua news agency reported.

Meanwhile, the sample will plummet back down to Earth in what looks like a tiny Apollo capsule, landing somewhere in the Utah desert to be collected by curious NASA scientists. Bennu may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth's oceans.

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