One last look: NASA spacecraft to perform final flyby of asteroid before heading back to Earth

OSIRIS-REx will fly over spot where it took a sample in October

In this image taken from video released by NASA, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft touches the surface of asteroid Bennu on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. (NASA via AP) (Uncredited)

NASA’s first spacecraft to collect a sample of an ancient asteroid will look one last time at the spot where it performed a quick tap to vacuum up the sample before beginning its 2-year journey back to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, briefly touched the surface of a potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu more than 200 million miles away in October, successfully gathering well over 2 ounces of surface material.

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After completing the “touch-and-go,” or TAG, maneuver using its pogo-stick-like arm to collect the sample the spacecraft stored the sample safely where it will remain until OSIRIS-REx drops the capsule down into the Utah desert in 2023. The sample was stowed about a month earlier than planned because the head of the arm appeared to be leaking bits of asteroid.

“I’m very thankful that our team worked so hard to get this sample stowed as quickly as they did,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta said in October. “Now we can look forward to receiving the sample here on Earth and opening up that capsule.”

But before it begins the long trek home NASA scientists are going to send OSIRIS-REx past the area where it stirred up the asteroid’s surface.

This undated image made available by NASA shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft's primary sample collection site, named "Nightingale," on the asteroid Bennu. An outline of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is placed at center to illustrate the scale of the site. After almost two years circling the ancient asteroid, OSIRIS-REx will attempt to descend to the treacherous, boulder-packed surface and snatch a handful of rubble on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona via AP)

Using its onboard cameras and other instruments the spacecraft will collect data to help its team know how well its science instruments fared during the touch-and-go maneuver when it stirred up a lot of asteroid dust. This will help NASA teams determine if the spacecraft is healthy enough to continue on a secondary mission after dropping of the prize from its first back on Earth.

The final look will also help scientists understand how OSIRIS-REx changed the surface of the asteroid.

The flyby will take OSIRIS-REx to about 2.3 miles from Bennu, the closest it’s been since that flawless smooch on the asteroid’s surface.

OSIRIS-REx will remain orbiting Bennu until May 10 then it will begin its cruise back to Earth.

Scientists on Earth are eager to get the sample from Bennu into laboratories and learn more about this fossil of our solar system.

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