01:50 GMT02 December 2020
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    NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft blasts off for Bennu, an asteroid that could be on track to collide with our planet in the 22nd century.

    The latest space probe is being launched aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket from Cape Canaveral. It will undertake a two-year journey to 101955 Bennu, arriving in 2018.

    Upon reaching its destination, Osiris will observe the asteroid for two years before retrieving a sample and returning to Earth.

    "The launch of OSIRIS-REx is the beginning of a seven-year journey to return pristine samples from asteroid Bennu," principle investigator Dante Lauretta said in a statement.

    "The team has built an amazing spacecraft, and we are all well-equipped to investigate Bennu and return with our scientific treasure."

    Retrieving the samples will not be easy. At only 1,640 feet in diameter, Bennu is a fairly small target, but its relatively slow rotation will make it easier for Osiris to approach.

    With over 500,000 known asteroids in our Solar System, scientists chose 101955 Bennu taking into account three important factors.

    "Bennu’s size, primitive and carbon-rich composition and orbit make it one of the most fascinating and accessible asteroids, and that is why it was ultimately chosen as the target asteroid for the OSIRIS-Rex mission," Christina Rickey, deputy program scientist with NASA, told reporters, according to Space.com.

    Researchers hope that studying the makeup of Bennu will provide some insight into the early days of the Solar System.

    While the asteroid’s relative accessibility is part of the appeal, it’s also what makes Bennu a potential danger for our planet. Passing through Earth’s orbit every six years, there is a small chance that the asteroid could hit our planet sometime after the year 2135.

    The spacecraft’s observations will give scientists a better understanding of the asteroid’s orbit and the forces that can alter that orbit. Solar energy, for instance, can have an effect on an object’s trajectory, as asteroids radiate heat.

    "When that happens, it acts like a thruster and changes the trajectory of the asteroid," OSIRIS-REx’s principal investigator Dante Lauretta told Space.com.

    "If you want to be able to predict where an object like Bennu is going to be in the future, you have to account for this phenomenon, and we’re going to provide the best-ever scientific investigation of this fascinating concept."


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