Spaceship chasing an asteroid to slingshot past Earth

Posted at 7:11 AM, Sep 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-22 07:11:54-04

A spaceship will swing by Earth on Friday and use our planet’s gravity to help it pick up speed on its way to explore an asteroid.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will fly about 11,000 miles (17,000 kilometers) above Antarctica at 12:52 p.m. ET.

The maneuver, called an Earth gravity assist, will point the spacecraft in the right direction to match Asteroid Bennu’s path and speed, NASA said in a statement.

“The Earth gravity assist is a clever way to move the spacecraft onto Bennu’s orbital plane using Earth’s own gravity instead of expending fuel,” the mission’s principal investigator, Dante Lauretta, said in the statement.

While OSIRIS-REx is making its flyby, mission scientists at the University of Arizona will test its instruments and use the spacecraft’s camera to take pictures of the Earth and moon.

It won’t be the last we see of this spacecraft. It will be back in 2023 — and it will come bearing gifts. NASA launched OSIRIS-REx from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in September 2016 to chase down Bennu, a dark asteroid that could one day threaten Earth.

The probe is scheduled to arrive at Bennu in August 2018 and will survey the asteroid for several months. Then, in July 2020, it will use its robot arm to blast the asteroid with nitrogen, causing it to kick up rocks and dust. It will try to snag a sample of the dust to bring back to Earth in 2023.

Can I see it?

On September 2, a telescope in Arizona snapped the first images of OSIRIS-REx taken from Earth since it was launched a year ago. The Large Binocular Telescope Observatory on Mount Graham captured grainy images of the spacecraft while it was about 7 million miles (12 million kilometers) away.

But can you see it with your own eyes? Yes, but you’ll need some equipment. NASA is encouraging amateur astronomers with specialized gear to photograph OSIRIS-REx as it swings by and to share their photos with the space agency.

“The opportunity to capture images of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft as it approaches Earth provides a unique challenge for observers to hone their skills during this historic flyby,” Lauretta said.

Wave to the spaceship

If you don’t get a chance to see OSIRIS-REx, don’t fret. Just wave. The mission team is asking the public to celebrate the Earth gravity assist by joining in the “Wave to OSIRIS-REx” social media campaign.

No matter where you are on Earth, take a selfie (or a group photo) waving to OSIRIS-REx. Share your photos at hashtag #HelloOSIRISREx.

NASA says you can share your photos at any time — or wait until the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft makes its closest approach to Earth.

On Tuesday, the OSIRIS-REx team will let us know how everything worked out with the flyby. They’ll discuss the results and release images taken by the spacecraft’s cameras.