NASA spacecraft approaches asteroid, snaps first pic

'Potentially hazardous' asteroid headed towards Earth, but there's no reason to panic

'Potentially hazardous' asteroid headed towards Earth, but there's no reason to panic

The spacecraft pointed its cameras at the asteroid on August 17 and snapped the closest photos ever of Bennu from a distance of 1.4 million miles (2.2 million km). Bennu appears as a blurry white speck in the grainy image.

After nearly two years of travel, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has finally captured the first glimpse of its target, asteroid Bennu, marking the official start of its final approach phase.

NASA provided an update on Friday, Aug. 24, about the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft. Now, Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid in the Apollo group, is within view.

While OSIRIS-REx is ready to get to work studying Bennu, NASA is busy planning the next New Frontiers mission.

With the help of OSIRIS-REx's PolyCam camera, the spacecraft has captured obtained the image from a distance of 1.4 million miles. The probe and mission scientists will regularly search for plumes and natural satellites. This should see the spacecraft some 20 kilometers above the asteroid. A few approaches will put the probe within 4.4 miles of the asteroid's surface.

Once Bennu is within range, the spacecraft will spend a month performing flybys of the asteroid's north pole, equator and south pole to measure its mass and observe the surface.

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Scientists will use the maps to ideal Bennu's orbit around the asteroid and to identify points of scientific interest. This will allow the scientists to analyze the foreign rock further.

"From the 2016 launch from Cape Canaveral to the safe return of the sample to Earth in 2023, Aerojet Rocketdyne propulsion plays a critical role in every phase of the OSIRIS-REx mission", said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake.

Astronomers say it poses a slight risk - a one in 2,700 chance - of colliding with Earth in 2135. And in order to earn the distinction of being tagged as an NEO, an object can pass at a much, much greater distance from Earth - roughly 30 million miles - and still qualify.

A variety of phenomena can alter the trajectory of an asteroid as it moves through space.

What's more important is the carbon content of the space rock and the likelihood of water on the asteroid that could be broken down into elementary hydrogen and oxygen which can be used to set up fueling stations for future explorations.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is part of NASA's New Frontiers initiative and was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

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