NASA’s spacecraft is orbiting closer to an asteroid than ever before

Although the European Space Agency (ESA) has placed asteroid 2006QV89 on its Risk List, there's no reason to sound the alarms just yet.

In the dark and lonely place that is space, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has managed to reach a new level of proximity as it studies an asteroid.

After a maneuver, the spacecraft in NASA’s asteroid study mission is orbiting closer to a planetary body than any spacecraft has ever come, the space agency said.

The mission recently entered a new phase where the spacecraft will orbit about 2,231 feet, or 0.4 miles, above the asteroid Bennu’s surface.

During this phase, known as Orbital B, the spacecraft will snap images of the asteroid’s horizon and map the object to determine where the best sample collection site on Bennu’s surface is, NASA said in a statement it released Thursday.

It will remain this close to the asteroid until the second week of August.

The spacecraft broke its previous record, which was set about 4,224 feet, or 0.8 miles, away from Bennu.

The end goal

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission.

It’s on a seven year mission. The spacecraft, which was launched in September 2016, arrived at Bennu in December 2018. It will survey and map Bennu, navigate in close proximity to the asteroid and ultimately touch the surface for five seconds to retrieve a sample, the mission’s website says.

“This sample of a primitive asteroid will help scientists understand the formation of the Solar System over 4.5 billion years ago,” NASA said.

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid that could pass our planet closer than the moon in 2135, with even closer approaches possible in 2175 and 2195.

Although the chance of Bennu directly striking Earth is unlikely, the information from OSIRIS-REx can help scientists understand how to deflect near-Earth asteroids.

Already, scientists have encountered unexpected observations. They have detected particle plumes ejecting off of the surface. This discovery means Bennu is a rare, active asteroid that regularly ejects material into space.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth in September 2023.

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