A spacecraft built by Lockheed Martin today is scheduled to arrive at Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid. This is the first mission by NASA meant to retrieve a sample of an interstellar space rock for analysis which we hope will help us develop new defenses to head off possible asteroid strikes.
The journey to Bennu, which is shaped like a top and as large as the Empire State Building, took more than two years.
According to Politico, the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx is a masterpiece of technology built by Lockheed Martin.
The spacecraft will map the asteroid’s surface before collecting between two ounces and four pounds of cosmic material in July 2020, according to a NASA fact sheet. It’s expected to return to Earth in September 2023.
A major goal of the $800 million project is to decipher the building blocks of the universe. Asteroids like Bennu have not changed substantially since they were formed 4.5 billion years ago and may “contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life,” NASA says.
But Bennu also poses a threat as “one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids,” NASA warns and has a “high probability” of hitting Earth sometime late next century. A primary reason scientists picked it for the mission was to advance NASA’s increasingly robust efforts to develop asteroid defenses.
This other large near-Earth asteroid NASA is now tracking sounds pretty bad, too, while another the size of a two-story house is already passing awfully close.
You can watch the Bennu arrival at 11:45 a.m. Eastern time.