Cocopah science students watch Osiris-REx landing on asteroid Bennu

Cocopah Middle School seventh grade science students part of NASA’s Worldwide Watch Party as Osiris-REx met up with the asteroid Bennu at 9:45 a.m., kicking the space agency’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample-return mission into full gear.

Scottsdale Unified School District Board Member Sandy Kravetz joined students and their teacher Tracey Dodrill — an ambassador on the Osiris-REx Mission — for this historic moment, according to a press release.

Students watched the live coverage from their classroom as well as researched the mission and built paper models following a set of specific instructions on the spacecraft.

“This is STEM in real life,” Ms. Dodrill said in a prepared statement.

“The kids got to learn about how both ASU and UA have a very important role in this mission. They not only learned about the science behind the mission and its goals, but the various types of careers that are available to those that might be interested in Space Science.”

Cocopah science students had a watch party to view the OSIRIS-REx make contact with the asteroid Bennu. (Submitted Photo)

NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft officially rendezvoused Monday, Dec. 3 with Bennu, an asteroid with a tiny chance of hitting Earth in the distant future.

“We have arrived,” Communications System Engineer Javi Cerna called out in the mission control center at Lockheed Martin outside Denver at about 10 minutes after 9 a.m. Pacifice Standard Time.

Osiris-Rex — which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer — launched from Earth Sept. 8, 2016, taking more than two years to link up with its target.

The goal of the mission is to become the first U.S. spacecraft to return a sample from an asteroid to Earth. Japan’s Hayabusa mission successfully brought back particles of an asteroid in 2010 and the follow-up, Hayabusa-2, is preparing for the sequel at the space rock Ryugu.

Osiris-Rex is equipped with a fancy robotic arm tipped with the equivalent of a super premium Shop-Vac called the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism, or Tagsam. Tagsam will reach out and literally tag the surface of Bennu.

Then, while touching the ancient rock, it’ll blow a burst of nitrogen gas to loosen up bits of debris that’ll be sucked up and transported home.

This cosmic pickpocketing won’t take place until 2020. Until then, Osiris-Rex will be orbiting, scanning and mapping its host to help pick just the right “tag” site.

In a way, asteroids are like time capsules that provide a look at the solar system billions of years in the past and scientists hope the mission will yield a more detailed history of our corner of the universe and perhaps even reveal the origins of life on Earth, a release states.

Some astronomers theorize that the building blocks of life were first delivered here by an asteroid. In addition to looking deep into the past, there’s also a chance Osiris-Rex will help us plan for the future.

“Bennu is a potentially hazardous asteroid,” Rich Burns, Osiris-Rex project manager for NASA, said in a prepared statement. “There’s a very small chance that it will impact Earth in the next century.”

The mission will investigate something called the Yarkovsky effect, in which an asteroid absorbs heat from the Sun and then radiates it back out into space, acting as a sort of mini-thruster that affects its movement.

Better understanding of this effect could help scientists predict the flight paths of asteroids, particularly those that might pose a threat to Earth in the future.

Monday, the mission team performed a burn to transition into operating around the asteroid, a challenging task given the minute gravity of an object that’s the smallest to ever be orbited by a spacecraft.

During NASA’s press event for the arrival at Bennu, navigation engineer Coralie Adam explained that the first close flyby of Bennu — at a distance of about five miles or eight kilometers — will take place Tuesday, Dec. 4.

Osiris-Rex will start its residency in the asteroid’s orbit by flying over its poles and equator to begin mapping the rock’s gravity and also identifying landmarks on the surface that’ll be used for navigation during the mission.

“Looking at Bennu in more and more detail is going to help us identify all the areas that we shouldn’t go to sample from,” said Dani Della-Giustina of the University of Arizona, the image processing lead for the mission.

The sample Osiris-Rex collects will be flown back to Earth, where mission planners aim to land it in the Utah desert in 2023.

According to the mission’s deputy principal investigator, Heather Enos, we can expect to see some of the first science data and perhaps some new close-up images from Bennu next week.

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