Daring maneuver brings NASA’s orbiter closer to an asteroid than ever before

Mike Wehner

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has been orbiting the space rock known as Bennu since the start of the year. It caught up with the asteroid in late December of 2018 and successfully inserted itself into orbit around the object around New Year’s day. There have been several “firsts” along the way, but its latest maneuver is the most daring yet, and it allowed the spacecraft to break yet another record.

A recent tweak to its orbit has brought the probe to an orbit of just 680 meters, or around 2,230 feet from the asteroid’s surface. This is now the closest that any manmade spacecraft has orbited any planetary body.

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It’s a stellar achievement for NASA, but it’s worth noting that the previous record was actually already held by the OSIRIS-REx probe. What NASA did was break its own record and set itself even farther ahead from any competition to come in the future.

This new orbit, which the research team calls the Orbital B phase, will give scientists a better understanding of the asteroid’s surface and hopefully allow NASA to choose a suitable location where the probe can briefly snag a sample of its material.

Actually pulling off such a daring maneuver will be incredibly risky, and nobody is quite sure if the spacecraft can make it happen. This is due in large part to the incredibly messy surface of Bennu, which surprised scientists when they got their first close look. The asteroid’s surface is littered with debris ranging from tiny pebbles to massive boulders, and the spacecraft’s handlers now have to find the safest place on the rock from which to gather a sample.

Assuming it pulls off the sample grab, the probe will then leave Bennu and return to Earth with the sample material stowed safely for scientists on Earth to examine.

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