NASA’s Osiris-Rex Spacecraft Is Headed for a Flyby With Earth

Osiris-Rex — a shortening of Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security, Regolith Explorer — was launched last year and circled the sun, returning for Friday’s flyby. It is to arrive at Bennu in about a year. The asteroid periodically crosses Earth’s orbit, and there’s even a 1-in-2,700 chance that it could hit Earth between 2175 and 2196.

Scientists believe that Bennu, a dark asteroid about 500 yards in diameter, is full of carbon-rich molecules dating back to the birth of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Those molecules might have been the ingredients that led to life on Earth. Osiris-Rex will attempt to collect a few pounds of rock and dirt from Bennu by gently bouncing off the surface like a pogo stick and collecting material that it disturbs with a burst of nitrogen gas. It will bring the samples back to Earth in 2023 for closer study.

For the flyby, there is no chance that Osiris-Rex, about the size of an S.U.V., will veer off course and slam into Earth. Spacecraft navigators have become adept at using precise flybys as slingshots to steer spacecraft through the solar system. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, for example, added nearly 9,000 miles per hour to its speed with a Jupiter flyby in 2007, shortening its travel time to Pluto (It still took another eight years to get there).

On Sept. 2, the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona spotted NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft as it approached Earth. That was the first time the asteroid-chasing probe has been seen from Earth since it launched last year.

Large Binocular Telescope Observatory

Dr. Moreau said Osiris-Rex will pass within a kilometer of the targeted spot above Earth. The timing is precise too, within a few tenths of a second. It will make its closest approach to Earth at 12:52 p.m. Eastern time on Friday.

Dr. Moreau said his team will face larger navigational challenges once Osiris-Rex gets to Bennu in 2018. “It’s the smallest object that has ever been orbited by a spacecraft,” he said. “And that’s exciting.”

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