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NASA plans asteroid mission. First stop: Bennu

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft has been approved for development, and NASA plans to send it to meet up with asteroid Bennu within the next five years.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Eric Mack
2 min read
A rendering of Osiris-Rex from a NASA concept video. Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

NASA's plan to go poking around on an asteroid, with the ultimate goal of snagging one of the space rocks and towing it closer to Earth, is moving forward, and a specific asteroid has been chosen to visit and sample in the next few years.

NASA has announced that the Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (Osiris-Rex) passed a key confirmation review Wednesday, approving the spacecraft to move into development phase. Translation: we're building a new spaceship, y'all!

Not only does Osiris-Rex (nice job on the naming, NASA folks) have a green light to be built, NASA also has chosen and named the first asteroid it will visit and sample. The asteroid now known as Bennu was previously called 1999 RQ36, but was renamed as part of a contest involving suggestions from thousands of schoolchildren. Nine-year-old Michael Puzio suggested the name, suggesting the Touch-and-Go Sample Mechanism (Tagsam) arm and solar panels on Osiris-Rex resemble the neck and wings of Bennu, better known as the Phoenix.

NASA says Bennu could hold clues to the origin of the solar system. The new spacecraft will rendezvous with Bennu in 2018 and begin collecting measurements that will be compared with observations of the asteroid from telescopes. Osiris Rex will also collect a minimum of 2 ounces (60 grams) of surface material to be returned to Earth by 2023.

The space agency says the mission to Bennu will be a key part of the larger mission to capture and relocate an entire asteroid for further study. Welcome to the era of asteroid ranching, folks.

More on the mission in the NASA video below: