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Arizona-built spacecraft to slingshot around Earth on Friday

(NASA Photo)

PHOENIX — A spacecraft that was designed and built in Arizona will slingshot around Earth on Friday as it makes its way to a nearby asteroid.

“The goal of the mission is to rendezvous with that asteroid (Bennu), perform a thorough mapping campaign then collect a sample from the surface for return to the Earth in 2023,” Dante Lauretta, the principle investigator for the NASA/OSIRIS-REx mission and professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona said.

Traveling at speeds about 19,000 mph, OSIRIS-REx is halfway through its two-year outbound trip. After traveling almost 600 million miles so, the spacecraft will fly over Australia on Friday before reaching its closest point to Earth over Antarctica, just south of Cape Horn, Chile.

“In order to get to the asteroid we had to fly around the sun for a whole year, come back to the Earth, which is happening [Friday] and we’re going to use the gravity field of the Earth to slingshot us up on to the same orbital plane as the asteroid,” Lauretta said.

The slingshot maneuver, called an Earth gravity assist, lets the spacecraft gain speed without carrying extra fuel.

All of the science operations for OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer), occur on the school’s Tucson campus.

Researchers hope to learn a lot from OSIRIS-REx’s journey.

“First, we’re really interested in the origin of the solar system and the role asteroids like Bennu played in making Earth habitable planet, particularly by bringing water and organic molecules which we believe led to the origin of life,” Lauretta said.

There was also a slim chance Bennu could slam into Earth in about 150 years. Lauretta hoped to learn how it could be diverted, if necessary.

“I like to say, ‘Don’t run out and buy asteroid insurance tonight,’ but we’d want to do our due diligence and understand these objects in the event that at some point in the future we have to perform an impact mitigation mission,” he said.

Finally, scientists are looking at these kinds of near-Earth asteroids as future resources.

“Asteroid mining is a field that’s really rapidly gaining credibility,” he said. “We’re looking processing asteroids for rocket fuel to enable deeper expeditions into the solar system.”

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