NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft set to approach asteroid possibly headed for Earth

NASAs’ space show goes on – just as many people from all around the globe tuned in to the space agency’s livestream of the InSight landing on Mars, there’s now a livestream of an asteroid chaser you can watch this coming Monday, 3 December.

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) will travel to 101955 Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid with a diameter of 492 metres that is currently on a potential collision course with Earth.

The mission for OSIRIS-REx, which has begun in 2016, is to collect a sample of the asteroid’s surface dust. Equipped with five instruments, it will survey the asteroids in close proximity before selecting a site for the sample.  

This is not the first time such a mission is taking place. Japanese space agency JAXA has sent its asteroid return-sample mission Hayabusa 2 in 2014, and it made contact with the 162173 Ryugu asteroid in June 2018. It is currently surveying the asteroid and collecting samples with two of its rovers, and will return to Earth in December 2020.

However, instead of landing on the asteroid, as Hayabusa 2 did earlier this year, OSIRIS-REx will drop an instrument onto the asteroid’s surface to collect particles with a robotic arm.

On Monday, OSIRIS-REx will get close enough the asteroid to determine its mass and speed of spinning. This is a long-term mission: the asteroid chaser will only return to Earth in 2023 with Bennu’s dust samples on board. Scientists believe that by analysing Bennu’s outer layer, they may find clues about how life on Earth began and how our solar system was formed.

It is true that Bennu has a chance of colliding with Earth – albeit quite small, and it won’t happen until between 2175 and 2199. However, scientists would like to explore ways of avoiding the potential collision, too.  

NASA is once again inviting viewers to its live broadcast, to experience the anticipation and virtually participate in the celebration, if OSIRIS-REx is successful.

Photo credit: NASA