Orbital visual: In first, NASA spaceship begins orbit of asteroid

Orbital visual: In first, NASA spaceship begins orbit of asteroid

Orbital visual: In first, NASA spaceship begins orbit of asteroid

The feat set two new records, as Bennu became the smallest space object to be circled by a human-made spacecraft and OSIRIS-REx reached the lowest orbit of a space object by a human spacecraft. The milestone event involved the asteroid Bennu, a relatively small space rock located about 70 million miles from Earth.

It's the smallest celestial body ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. The size of Bennu is historic because the asteroid barely has enough gravity to pull the spacecraft into a stable orbit.

OSIRIS-REx officially arrived at Bennu on December 3.

OSIRIS-REx is the first-ever U.S. mission created to explore an asteroid and return a sample of its dust back to Earth.

"Our orbit design is highly dependent on Bennu's physical properties, such as its mass and gravity field, which we didn't know before we arrived", said OSIRIS-REx's flight dynamics system manager Mike Moreau. "With the navigation campaign coming to an end, we are looking forward to the scientific mapping and sample site selection phase of the mission", Lauretta added.

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Osiris-Rex launches at Cape Canaveral in 2016. "Entering orbit around Bennu is an incredible accomplishment that our team has been planning for years". The spacecraft, 110 million kilometres away, carried out a single, eight-second burn of its thrusters on Monday. Instead, the spacecraft will perform a very close flyby, blast the asteroid with gas to knock loose some rocks and dust, and gather the propelled materials. The OSIRIS-REx team will resume science operations in late February.

Campins, a University of Central Florida physics professor, who specializes in studying asteroids, is on the team that will help decide where OSIRIS-REx will collect that sample.

The OSIRIS-REx mission is scheduled to deliver the sample to Earth in September 2023. The spacecraft continued to close that gap before it began orbiting around the diamond-shaped space rock around 1 p.m. ET. on New Year's Eve.

Meanwhile, a NASA spacecraft on Tuesday flew past the most distant world ever studied by humankind, Ultima Thule, a frozen relic of the early solar system that could reveal how planets formed.

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