The robotic explorer Osiris-Rex pulled within 12 miles (19km) of the diamond-shaped object on Monday and will go into orbit around it on 31 December.
"As explorers, we at NASA have never shied away from the most extreme challenges in the solar system in our quest for knowledge", said Lori Glaze, Acting Director for NASA's Planetary Science Division. It is a tool designed pinch the asteroid, take a sample of it and return it back to Earth for study.
Let's start with destruction; scientists estimate there is a one-in-2,700 chance of the asteroid slamming catastrophically into Earth 166 years from now.
Japan's Hayabusa mission returned a small sample of an asteroid known as 25143 Itokawa in 2010; a successor craft, Hayabusa-2, arrived at an asteroid called Ryugu previous year and is expected to return a sample in 2020.
OSIRIS-REx is carrying five scientific instruments with it that will enable scientists to select a safe and suitable location for soil sample collection. Along the way, the spacecraft performed a flyby of Earth on September 22, 2017 for a gravity assist to place the craft on its final trajectory to Bennu. Over the next several days, a team led by Distinguished Professor Daniel Scheeres will take the first stab at calculating a simple, but critical, number: Bennu's mass.
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OSIRIS-REx's approach to Bennu This video shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft's view of Bennu during the final phase of its journey to the asteroid. "The exploration of Bennu has just begun, and we have a lifetime of adventure ahead of us". "We have arrived!" he called out moments later.
OSIRIS-REx is NASA's first asteroid sample return mission, and the largest sample return since Apollo returned moon rocks.
Another reason Bennu is chosen among over 500,000 known asteroids in the Solar System is its carbon-rich composition. The new data will help scientists better understand how asteroids form and evolve. The spacecraft has traveled more than two billion miles over more than two years, according to the space agency, which has shared an animation showing a full rotation of the Bennu asteroid. "These observations have revealed an asteroid that is both consistent with our expectations from ground-based measurements and an exceptionally interesting small world". Analysis of the regolith will also tell us more about the effects of space weathering on the surface of small bodies from harsh solar radiation.
When OSIRIS-REx begins to orbit Bennu at the end of this month, it will come close to approximately three quarters of a mile (1.25 km) to its surface. It's expected to arrive on September 2023 and the sealed sample contained will reenter the atmosphere using a heat shield and float back to scientists via parachute into the Utah desert.
"It will really be record-breaking in terms of the precision, the navigation, compared to anything we've done before", said flight navigator Coralie Adam, an engineer at aerospace company KinetX. OSIRIS-REx is an acronym of the mission objectives.