NASA spacecraft begins New Year's Eve dance with asteroid 70 million miles away

OSIRIS-REx to return sample of asteroid Bennu

Artist rendering of OSIRIS-REx orbiting the asteroid Bennu. (Image: Heather Roper/University of Arizona)

On New Year's Eve, while people on Earth celebrated another orbit around the sun, 70 million miles away, NASA's spacecraft OSIRIS-REx began it's dance with an asteroid called Bennu.

The robot will court its object for a year, mapping the asteroid's every feature before its team selects a spot to collect a sample from and return to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, reached the 12-mile mark from Bennu's surface earlier this month. The spacecraft continued to close that gap before it began orbiting around the diamond-shaped space rock around 1 p.m. ET. on New Year's Eve.

The NASA mission led by University of Arizona is the first to orbit an object so small. The diamond-like shaped Bennu is estimated to be about as tall and wide as the Empire State Building. The size of Bennu is historic because the asteroid barely has enough gravity to pull the spacecraft into a stable orbit.

OSIRIS-REx will orbit Bennu about a mile from the center of the space rock for more than one month, taking about 62 hours to make one full circle.

The spacecraft's first close up images of Bennu taken Dec. 5 allowed its team to ensure a safe orbit insertion New Year's Eve.

“Our orbit design is highly dependent on Bennu’s physical properties, such as its mass and gravity field, which we didn’t know before we arrived,” said OSIRIS-REx’s flight dynamics system manager Mike Moreau. "As the team learned more about the asteroid, we incorporated new information to hone in on the final orbit design."

The team will continue to adjust the spacecraft's maneuver and trajectory to match Bennu's gravitational pull, according to mission officials.

OSIRIS-REx will begin a series of fly-bys of Bennu in February when it resumes science operations.

Already, the spacecraft has found signs of water, which is one of the reasons NASA chose to collect from this asteroid.

In the next year as OSIRIS-REx uses its suite of science instruments to create maps of the asteroid the science imaging team will be looking for areas of scientific value that contain organic molecules and hydrating minerals -- essentially the building blocks of life.

The best-case scenario is that the mapping efforts produce a few sample site options on the ancient asteroid from which the team can choose.

"This is when the really intense work starts because we need to map the asteroid and select the site," OSIRIS-REx imaging team member Humberto Campins recently told News 6.

Campins, a University of Central Florida physics professor, who specializes in studying asteroids, is on the team that will help decide where OSIRIS-REx will collect that sample. Campins is one of two UCF facility working on the mission, along with Yan Fernandez.

Click here to see what else Campins said lies ahead for the spacecraft.

OSIRIS-REx is slated to collect at least 60 grams of dirt and rocks in July 2020 and bring the sample back to Earth. A capsule with the precious materials will land in the Utah desert in September 2023.