It’s been two years and two months since NASA launched its $800-million from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Finally, OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived.

Just after noon ET today OSIRIS-REx fired its thrusters for a small burn, putting it about 4.3 miles from Bennu. Thus, marking the end of its journey to the asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission.

The Mission

The spacecraft will spend more than a year surveying and mapping the asteroid. So, researchers will use that information to select a sample site. OSIRIS-REx will then gently lower its 11-foot robotic arm to the surface of the 1,600-foot-wide asteroid for a few seconds in 2020 to suck up a sample of regolith (the dust and pebbles believed to make up the asteroid). After bouncing off of the surface of Bennu the spacecraft will finally begin heading back to Earth in 2021. Thus, delivering its sample, if all goes well, in September 2023.

It will be the biggest sample brought back from space since the Apollo era and the first sample of an asteroid ever returned to Earth by a U.S. space mission.

Japan’s Hayabusa mission returned a small sample of an asteroid known as 25143 Itokawa in 2010. A successor craft, Hayabusa-2, arrived at an asteroid called Ryugu last year and scientists expect it to return a sample in 2020.

However, NASA published the first images of the asteroid from the spacecraft’s perspective as it got closer and closer.

This set of images shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s view of Bennu during the final phase of its journey to the asteroid. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

Asteroid Bennu is about 76 million miles from Earth in its orbit around the sun. The spacecraft is now positioned less than 12 miles from the asteroid.

NASA’s mission will increase our understanding of asteroids and the growth and evolution of our solar system. It will also yield insights into how life arose.

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Thumbnail image: This artist’s concept shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lowering its arm to take a sample of the asteroid Bennu. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center