NASA's OSIRIS-REx has started orbiting asteroid Bennu

NASA's OSIRIS-REx has started orbiting asteroid Bennu

The spacecraft is orbiting Bennu about a mile from its center.

A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spacecraft has gone into orbit around an ancient asteroid, setting a pair of records.

It's the smallest celestial body ever to be orbited by a spacecraft.

The asteroid measures about 1,600 feet (500 meters) in diameter.

Scientists are hoping the OSIRIS-Rex mission to Bennu will help uncover more about the early formation of the solar system, as well as how to find precious resources like metals and water in asteroids.

OSIRIS-REx is the first-ever U.S. mission created to explore an asteroid and return a sample of its dust back to Earth.

The $800 million unmanned spaceship launched two years ago from Cape Canaveral, Florida and arrived December 3 at its destination, some 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) away.

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"With the navigation campaign coming to an end, we are looking forward to the scientific mapping and sample site selection phase of the mission", Lauretta said.

The OSIRIS-REx team will now look for a site devoid of boulders and rocks where the probe can scoop up samples as it circles the asteroid.

The team will continue to adjust the spacecraft's maneuver and trajectory to match Bennu's gravitational pull, according to mission officials. 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 risky space rocks, NASA officials have said.

The spacecraft is scheduled to orbit Bennu through mid-February at a leisurely 62 hours per orbit. "So, we do have to get a little more information to proceed every step of the way".

OSIRIS-REx will also make contributions in other ways. Afterward, the spacecraft will fly back toward Earth before jettisoning the "Sample Return Capsule" in September 2023.

The very close orbit will enable OSIRIS-REx to take very detailed images of the asteroid's surface, which NASA describes as a "rubble pile of primordial debris". It poses a slight risk - a one in 2,700 chance - of colliding with Earth in 2135.

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