NASA's OSIRIS-REX asteroid probe arrived at its target, a large space rock known as Bennu, in early December. The spacecraft mission will take several years to complete, but it hit an important milestone for closing out 2018 by walking around Bennu. It may not sound that much, but it is actually an important result for NASA, and it has put a few new records in the process.
As AP reports, the probe's successful maneuver to enter Bennu's circuit makes it the first spacecraft to pave a celestial body so small. At only about 1600 feet in diameter, it is the smallest object ever to be successfully wrapped, and OSIRIS-REx's close circumference of just over a mile is also record breaking.
The OSIRIS-REx mission was originally launched far back in late 2016. It took a couple of years for the probe to make it its asteroid goal, but now that it is there, it can start studying Bennu to a much greater extent than ever before.
We got our first clear look at the rock's surface last month. The images provided by the probe reveal a messy collection of dirt strewn over the asteroid surface. Ultimately, the mission's biggest challenge will be to collect some of that material and then return it to Earth, but the touch-and-go trial collection process will only begin until 2020.
Once the probe has snapped some stones from Bennu's outside, the long journey back to Earth begins and eventually reaches in 2023, if everything goes according to plan.
The in-orbit studies of the asteroid and possible delivery of asteroid material will help scientists understand what constitutes some of the major asteroids in our solar system. Determining how they formed and other details of their origin could help astronomers tell a more detailed story of the origin of our system and Earth itself, and perhaps help us prepare and predict asteroid effects in the future.