Launched two years ago, NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft pulled alongside the asteroid Bennu early Monday morning Hawaii Standard Time. Its mission is to survey the asteroid ahead of retrieving pristine bits of the solar system from the rock’s surface and then bringing them back to Earth in the years ahead.
David Trang, a postdoctoral associate at the Hawaiʻi Institute for Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP) in SOEST, was selected last year as a participating scientist on NASA‘s first asteroid sample return mission, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx). As a participating scientist, he is a science team member during his three-year tenure with the mission.
With a short engine burn, the spacecraft matched the speed and direction of Bennu. A few minutes after noon, Javier Cerna, a communications systems engineer at Lockheed Martin, which built and operates the spacecraft, announced, “We have arrived.”
Osiris-Rex will make a series of passes over the asteroid at a range of 4.3 miles for an initial survey to better determine its mass, rate of spin and shape.
In January, the spacecraft will get closer to Bennu, between 0.9 and 1.2 miles, and be drawn into orbit around the asteroid, which will be the smallest object ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. Osiris-Rex will then spend more than a year performing reconnaissance of Bennu, before attempting to bounce off the surface and collect a sample of the asteroid in mid-2020.
By studying a primitive asteroid, scientists hope to get a better idea of what was around in the solar system’s earliest days.