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NASA spacecraft preps for chest-bump with asteroid Bennu

The space agency's Osiris-Rex has been on a long journey to meet up with a potentially threatening asteroid -- so it can bring a piece home.

This artist's interpretation shows what Osiris-Rex might look like when it reaches Bennu.

NASA launched its Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security - Regolith Explorer, better known as Osiris-Rex, back in 2016 and it's been cruising toward a gentle collision with the asteroid Bennu ever since. 

But last Friday the spacecraft officially began the "asteroid operations" phase of its mission as it aims to take its first photos of its space rock destination and survey the surroundings for any possible hazards. Osiris-Rex is currently just a little over 1.2 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Bennu and scheduled to arrive at the asteroid on Dec. 3. 

Once it gets there, it will survey and map Bennu before coming in for a long hug, touching the surface of the asteroid for five seconds to gather a sample of it. While at the asteroid, Osiris-Rex will survey and map Bennu, navigate in close proximity to the asteroid, and ultimately touch the surface for five seconds to gather a sample of the asteroid.  

It's likely to be one of the first extra-planetary pickpocketings in history. 

After collecting a piece of Bennu, which is a significant target because there's a slight chance the asteroid could impact Earth in the 22nd century, the spacecraft will then deliver it back to Earth in 2023, completing a seven-year journey. 

The hope is that the mission, and analyzing a bit of Bennu, will tell us something about the early history of the solar system and the origin of life on Earth. It could also provide useful information on protecting our planet from dangerous asteroids and further exploration (including mining) of other ones. 

NASA plans to provide an update to the media, and hopefully the spacecraft's first images of Bennu, at a teleconference on Friday at 11 a.m. PT. Audio will be streamed live on the agency's website. 

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