Asteroid Bennu getting first visitor in billions of years


Multiple explosions that sent fireballs and smoke billowing from the seaside pad occurred barely a mile south of Launch Complex 41, where the asteroid mission was preparing to lift off on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket.

Not only will the robotic probe fly to the ancient asteroid, it will scout it out for two years before scooping up some gravel and dust, and deliver the samples back to Earth.

On Thursday, NASA will launch its first mission to visit an asteroid and bring precious samples back to Earth. NASA's Stardust mission brought back samples of dust from Comet Wild 2.

The space rock was spotted by the Mt. Lemmon Survey's 60-inch telescope near Tucson, Ariz., on September 5 and it quickly became clear that the asteroid, called 2016 RB1, was going to breeze by and not impact our atmosphere.

On Sept. 17, yet another asteroid will scream past the Earth at 31,000 miles per hour, just barely missing us.

NASA's robotic asteroid hunter, Osiris-Rex, is created to scoop up pebbles and rock the size of gravel - anywhere from one to four or even five handfuls in a single swipe.

OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona-Tucson shows an enthusiastic thumbs up while discussing the mission with reporters during a visit to a clean room at the Kennedy Space Center where the spacecraft was being processed for launch.

"The big prize is going to be achieved when we get a sample of Bennu", said Jeffrey Grossman, OSIRIS-REx program scientist.

The asteroid is approximately 1,900 feet (500 metres) in diameter or roughly the size of six football fields. The scientists also theorize that Bennu holds clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of the water and organic molecules that may have made their way to Earth. The mission aims at providing a better understanding of how planets formed and how life began on Earth. The spacecraft shares that Egyptian motif, bearing the mythological god's name Osiris. The first thing he did was research the god Osiris, the mission's acronym-enhanced namesake (OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer). That means Bennu is one of the most risky space rocks we know of because it could one day collide with Earth.

In order to mitigate that risk, scientists want to know more about its physical and chemical properties. If so, Bennu is a time capsule that could help explain how life sprouted on Earth and, possibly, elsewhere in the neighborhood. Lauretta said the odds of a direct hit by Bennu are low - less than one-tenth of 1 percent - and not until about 150 years from now.

Lauretta said he started tracking the asteroid in 1999.

A 115-minute launch window opens at 7:05 p.m.

NASA is sending a space robot to run after an asteroid, but the question is why? With its twin solar wings, it resembles a boxy bird.

OSIRIS REx carries a suite of science instruments developed at UA, ASU and NASA Goddard.

According to the Virtual Telescope project the asteroid, named 2016 RB1, 'will make an exceptionally close encounter with our home planet'.

While the newfound asteroid poses no threat to the planet, it is not the first asteroid to whiz by the Earth within the moon's orbit in the last month.

Aerojet Rocketdyne builds its engines one at time based on a company's needs - so it's fate that this particular engine will power the upper stage of the Atlas V rocket that carries OSIRIS-REx toward Bennu.