On Monday, a NASA spacecraft reached the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, kicking off a research mission that could help us unlock secrets of the early solar system and, hopefully, the start of life on Earth. The spacecraft, named OSIRIS-REx (because Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue), has been beaming pictures of its approach to the asteroid all the way, allowing us to get a really close look for the first time.
“The story of this asteroid is the story of the solar system,” Bashar Rizk, instrument scientist for OSIRIS-REx, told CNN. “When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system.”
After a two year journey traveling to reach the asteroid’s orbit between Earth and Mars, the spacecraft is now less than 12 miles from Bennu. Following a few initial passes to get a sense of spin, mass, and shape, OSIRIS-REx will drop in close enough to start orbiting the asteroid in its weak field of gravity. If this happens as planned in January 2019, Bennu will become the smallest object NASA has ever orbited.