NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrives at asteroid

OSIRIS-REx snapped this image of Bennu from a distance of 50 miles

OSIRIS-REx snapped this image of Bennu from a distance of 50 miles

As NASA scientists learn more about Bennu, they'll be comparing their findings with counterparts from the Japanese Space Agency, whose Hayabusa 2 spacecraft arrived at the asteroid Ryugu earlier this year.

Osiris-Rex reached the "preliminary survey" phase of its mission on Monday, soaring to within 20km of the asteroid.

In 2020, after 18 months of observations, OSIRIS-REx will swoop close to Bennu and extend a long robotic arm equipped with its sample-collecting instrument, called TAGSAM.

"The low-gravity environment is one of the foremost challenges in conducting this mission", Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a NASA video.

After today, OSIRIS-REx will spend almost a year examining Bennu and sending back highly detailed images of its surface.

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NASA targeted Bennu for its sample mission for a number of reasons. Polycam is an eight-inch telescope that was the first camera to acquire Bennu and will be used to perform high-resolution mapping, while the Mapcam is used to search for plumes and satellites, and to take RGB color and near-infrared images for spectral imaging, topographic mapping, and color photography.

The long-awaited rendezvous officially kicks off the start of the ambitious mission to study a near-Earth object that could hold the key to understanding the origins of our solar system, and life itself. Along the way, the spacecraft performed a flyby of Earth on September 22, 2017 for a gravity assist to place the craft on its final trajectory to Bennu. Getting their hands on pristine asteroid material might also yield clues about how to mine them for valuable materials and defend against wayward ones that might threaten Earth. The OSIRIS-REx mission is designed, in part, to determine the reality of this danger and help us prepare to prevent such a catastrophe before it occurs. It is about 1,600 feet (488 meters) wide and most likely broke away from a larger asteroid between Mars and Jupiter a couple of billion years ago. It's easier to land on, and once on the surface, there will be plenty of material to sample.

Mr Lauretta said scientists were interested in "organic molecules that may have led to the origin of life and water-bearing minerals like clays" in their analysis of the asteroid. Astronomers have studied Bennu intensely from a distance, and they know that it's a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid.

Osiris-Rex is set to shadow Bennu for about a year and collect at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of dust and gravel to bring back to Earth in 2023. This means OSIRIS-REx can match its velocity and touch down briefly.

The spacecraft will now spend nearly a year surveying the space rock from orbit. To that end, the College of Optical Sciences, which helped design some of OSIRIS-REx's cameras in conjunction with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Steward Observatory, recently received a $20 million endowment.

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The spacecraft will also carry a laser altimeter, a suite of cameras provided by the University of Arizona, spectrometers and lidar, which is similar to radar, using light instead of radio waves to measure distance.

New Horizons will fly past its target, a frozen, unaltered body known as Ultima Thule, on New Year's day, a few hours after OSIRIS-REx slips into a gravitationally-bound orbit around Bennu.

Afterward, the Orbital-B survey will finish mapping Bennu well enough to select a primary and backup sampling site.

The dust will be captured in the sampler head.

Finally, on September 24, 2023, a capsule containing the sample will streak through Earth's atmosphere and land in the Utah desert.

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The SRC will separate from the spacecraft and enter Earth's atmosphere, to be collected at the Utah Test and Training Range.

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