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AFP
December 5, 2018

Nasa’s first asteroid sample collector arrives at target

World

AFP
December 5, 2018

TAMPA: NASA’s first-ever mission designed to visit an asteroid and return a sample of its dust back to Earth arrived Monday at its destination, Bennu, two years after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The $800 million unmanned mission, known as OSIRIS-REx, made a rendez-vous with the asteroid at around 12:10 pm (1710 GMT), firing its engines a final time. “We have arrived,” said Javier Cerna, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, as his colleagues at mission control in Littleton, Colorado cheered and exchanged high-fives, according to a live NASA television broadcast. Bennu is about 1,600 feet (500 meters) in diameter, about the size of a small mountain. It is the smallest object ever to be orbited by a human-made spacecraft.

A fragment of the early solar system, Bennu is also considered potentially dangerous. It poses a slight risk — a one in 2,700 chance — of colliding with Earth in 2135. The carbon-rich asteroid was chosen from some 500,000 asteroids in the solar system because it orbits close to Earth’s path around the Sun, is the right size for scientific study, and is one of the oldest asteroids known to NASA.

Scientists hope it will reveal more about the early formation of the solar system, as well as how to find precious resources like metals and water in asteroids. “With asteroids, you have a time capsule. You have a pristine sample of what the solar system was like billions of years ago,” said Michelle Thaller, a spokeswoman for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“That is why for scientists this sample is going to be far more precious than even gold.”The mission launched in September 2016. Over the past several months, OSIRIS REx has been creeping toward Bennu, and finally reached the space rock when it was about 80 million miles (129 million kilometers) from Earth.

“For the past several months, Bennu has been coming into focus as I approached,” said NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Twitter account. “Now that I’m here, I’ll fly around the asteroid and study it in detail.” The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of five science instruments to study the asteroid for the next year and a half, mapping it in high resolution to help scientists decide precisely where to sample from.

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