After a two-year chase, a NASA spacecraft arrived Monday at the ancient asteroid Bennu, its first visitor in billions of years. The robotic explorer Osiris-Rex pulled within 12 miles of the diamond-shaped space rock. It will get even closer in the days ahead and go into orbit around Bennu on Dec. 31, the AP reports. No spacecraft has ever orbited such a small cosmic body. It is the first US attempt to gather asteroid samples for return to Earth, something only Japan has accomplished so far. Flight controllers applauded and exchanged high-fives once confirmation came through that Osiris-Rex made it to Bennu—exactly one week after NASA landed a spacecraft on Mars.
"Relieved, proud, and anxious to start exploring!" tweeted lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona. "To Bennu and back!" With Bennu some 76 million miles away, it took seven minutes for word to get from the spacecraft to flight controllers at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colo. The spacecraft, which is about the size of an SUV, will shadow the asteroid for a year, before scooping up some gravel for return to Earth in 2023. The spacecraft will use a mechanical arm to momentarily touch down and vacuum up particles. The sample container would break loose and head toward Earth in 2021. The collection—parachuting down to Utah—would represent the biggest cosmic haul since the Apollo astronauts hand-delivered moon rocks to Earth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (There's a chance NASA might try to destroy Bennu before 2135.)