NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is currently on its way to an asteroid to do some very cool science, but it has to make a quick stop by Earth first. As the probe executes a flyby of its home planet in the next few weeks, astronomers around the world will be watching the sky to get one last look at OSIRIS-REx before it heads off to the asteroid Bennu. If you’ve got access to a telescope, you might even be able to catch a glimpse of the spacecraft.
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, was launched almost exactly one year ago aboard an Atlas V rocket operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA). Its target is the asteroid Bennu, which swings around the inner solar system every 1.2 years and crosses the orbit of Earth. It has a not-insignificant chance of impacting Earth in the late 22nd century. That could be a catastrophic event, as Bennu is about half a kilometer wide.
In order to rendezvous with Bennu, OSIRIS-REx needs a gravity assist from Earth. Thus, it’s going to make a close approach later this month that will set it on a course to reach its target. OSIRIS-REx will first be visible to powerful telescopes on September 10th and will complete its flyby on September 23rd. During that time, it will get as close as 11,000 miles (17,000 km) from the planet’s surface. That’s close enough that amateur astronomers will be able to see the probe. In fact, volunteers from the OSIRIS-REx Target Asteroids! citizen science program will be helping mission scientists track the spacecraft and taking photos.
The flyby is not only a significant change in trajectory for OSIRIS-REx, but it also offers an opportunity for scientists to test the probe’s instruments by observing Earth. Getting the public excited about the mission after a year in space is a nice bonus, too. Those who capture images of the probe as it passes by Earth are invited to submit them to the mission’s website. That’s also where you can go to for help locating the spacecraft.
This won’t technically be the last time OSIRIS-REx sees the Earth. Its mission is not just to observe Bennu, but to gather a sample of its surface and send it back to Earth. A sample container will be returned in 2023, marking the first time scientists have been able to directly examine asteroid regolith that hasn’t been exposed to the heat of atmospheric entry. This could tell us a lot about the nature and composition of these objects.
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