In first, NASA spaceship begins orbit of asteroid

OSIRIS-REx orbiting Bennu

OSIRIS-REx orbiting Bennu

The Nasa spacecraft Osiris-Rex has gone into orbit around an ancient asteroid, setting a pair of records.

On Monday, after closely studying the asteroid for several weeks, the spaceship fired its thrusters to bring it into orbit around Bennu at 2:43 pm (1943 GMT).

The spacecraft, called OSIRIS-REx, is the first-ever USA mission created to visit an asteroid and return a sample of its dust back to Earth.

Osiris-Rex launches at Cape Canaveral in 2016.

The asteroid measures about 1,600 feet (500 meters) in diameter.

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Osiris-Rex arrived at Bennu in early December and flew in formation with it until the latest manoeuvre. Osiris-Rex is barely more than a km above the asteroid's surface. For example, the mission should increase scientists' understanding of the resource potential of Bennu-like asteroids and help fine-tune the trajectories researchers draw up for potentially risky space rocks, NASA officials have said.

"The gravity of Bennu is so small, forces like solar radiation and thermal pressure from Bennu's surface become much more relevant and can push the spacecraft around in its orbit much more than if it were orbiting around Earth or Mars, where gravity is by far the most dominant force."

Such work was required before attempting orbital insertion because "maneuvering around a small body that basically has no gravity is a very challenging endeavor", OSIRIS-REx Deputy Principal Investigator Heather Enos, also of the University of Arizona, told Space.com earlier this month.

Then, in 2020, it will reach out with its robotic arm and touch the asteroid in a maneuver Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager with Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, described as a "gentle high-five". The goal is to descend to the surface and collect samples of regolith - loose rock and dust - for return to Earth in 2023.

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