Thursday, 24 January, 2019

Spacecraft sets records orbiting asteroid 110m km away

Spacecraft sets records orbiting asteroid 110m km away Space probe Osiris-Rex makes closest ever orbit around smallest object
Cary Marshall | 02 January, 2019, 18:37

A NASA asteroid-sampling probe has begun circling its space-rock target, setting a new record for the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft. For example, the mission should increase scientists' understanding of the resource potential of Bennu-like asteroids and help fine-tune the trajectories researchers draw up for potentially unsafe space rocks, NASA officials have said.

Osiris-Rex launches at Cape Canaveral in 2016. This marks the first time humanity has managed to put a spacecraft into such a close orbit around such a small object...one so small that the gravity is barely sufficient enough for a stable orbit.

The OSIRIS-REx probe achieved orbit around the 1,640-foot-wide (500 meters) near-Earth asteroid Bennu with an eight-second engine burn today (Dec. 31) at 2:43 p.m. EST (1943 GMT).

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Osiris-Rex arrived at Bennu in early December and flew in formation with it until the latest manoeuvre. A single orbit takes 62 hours to complete; the mission will run through mid-February. The images delivered by the probe reveal a messy collection of debris strewn all over the asteroid's exterior. Among other things, researchers have already noted signs of ancient water on the asteroid.

"The gravity of Bennu is so small, forces like solar radiation and thermal pressure from Bennu's surface become much more relevant and can push the spacecraft around in its orbit much more than if it were orbiting around Earth or Mars, where gravity is by far the most dominant force."
Once safely at a distance, the vehicle's team will be able to assess the situation and eventually put the spacecraft back into orbit again. "Entering orbit around Bennu is an wonderful accomplishment that our team has been planning for years". The goal is to descend to the surface and collect samples of regolith - loose rock and dust - for return to Earth in 2023.

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