Why is NASA chasing this asteroid?

NASA is sending a space probe to chase down a dark, potentially dangerous asteroid. The probe will take a sample of the asteroid and — in a US space first — bring the sample back to Earth.

“This is a dark asteroid that we have found and we’re going to hunt down, we’re going to orbit, we’re going to take a good look at it and we’re going to bring back a sample,” Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said at a news briefing on August 17.

If you’re thinking this sounds a bit like the plot from the 1998 sci-fi flick “Armageddon” you would be right, but without Bruce Willis (there won’t be any people on this spacecraft) and without space shuttles (NASA retired the shuttles in 2011).

In this real life story, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx space probewill spend two years flying through space to catch up to an asteroid named Bennu, a big, roundish space rock that has made it onto NASA’s list of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids. That means Bennu is one of the most dangerous space rocks we know of because it could one day collide with Earth.

Launch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. ET September 8 with backup launch windows for an additional 33 days. OSIRIS-REx will lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket.

The probe is scheduled to arrive at Bennu in August 2018. For months it will hang out — take pictures, make scans of the asteroid’s surface and create a map.

“We’re going to get to asteroid Bennu and we’re going to map this brand new world that we’ve never seen before,” said Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator.

Then, in July 2020, OSIRIS-REx will unfurl its 11-foot long (3.35 meters) robot arm called “TAGSAM” and make contact with Bennu’s surface for about five seconds. During those few seconds, the arm will use a blast of nitrogen gas to kick up rocks and dust and then try to snag a sample of the dust and store it.

“The big prize is going to be achieved when we get a sample of Bennu,” said Jeffrey Grossman, OSIRIS-REx program scientist. “We don’t technically land on Bennu, but we make contact with it for about five seconds.”

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