Many objects and bodies travel through our solar system. Planets, comets, the Kuiper Belt—our solar system is full of bodies for study.
However, of these bodies, scientists on the OSIRIS-REx mission are particularly interested in asteroids.
These floating mounds of rock and minerals have the potential to impact deep space exploration for decades to come.
But before humanity can put these all-important asteroids to work during space exploration, we have to understand them.
That’s why, in 2016, NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to explore the asteroid Bennu, located 1.2 billion miles away from Earth.
An asteroid named Bennu
Asteroids are the remnants of the universe’s birth. They’re the building blocks of our solar system and the materials that formed planets.
Bennu is an asteroid located between Earth and Mars. Classified as a near-Earth asteroid, on average Bennu orbits 100 million miles away from the sun. Bennu measures approximately 1,600 feet in length, which is equivalent to five football fields.
The asteroid is of particular interest to scientists because of its size, location, and composition.
Scientists are studying Bennu’s location and size because it’s a near-Earth asteroid. If its orbit ever takes it to Earth, scientists need to understand the best way to redirect the asteroid.
Bennu is also a B-type asteroid. It’s rich in carbon and other organic molecules. Its composition is similar to materials on Earth, which opens up the potential for mining missions in the future.
What is OSIRIS-REx?
OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer.
NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx craft on September 8, 2016. After two years and 1.2 billion miles of travel, it entered Bennu’s orbit on December 31, 2018.
OSIRIS-REx now operates in Bennu’s orbit. It’s currently located 12 miles away from Bennu to study the asteroid. OSIRIS-REx is studying the sun-facing side of Bennu, including both of its poles and equators.
OSIRIS-REx will collect critical data on the Bennu asteroid. The goal is to study how asteroids affect the Earth, to understand planetary formation, and to glean insight into how life began on Earth.
The OSIRIS-REx mission will first generate models of Bennu’s size, shape, and movement.
Over the next few years, scientists will collect this data to find an ideal landing spot on Bennu. That’s right: OSIRIS-REx will briefly approach Bennu to collect two ounces of rock and soil.
But that’s not all. Not only will Bennu collect these samples, but it will return to Earth by 2023 for scientists to study the samples.