LAUREL, Md. — A NASA spacecraft has gone into orbit around an ancient asteroid, setting a pair of records.
The Osiris-Rex spacecraft entered orbit Monday around the asteroid Bennu, 70 million miles from Earth. It’s the smallest celestial body ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. Bennu is just 1,600 feet across.
The spacecraft’s laps are barely a mile above the asteroid’s surface, another record.
Osiris-Rex arrived at Bennu in early December and flew in formation with it until the latest maneuver. The goal is to grab gravel samples in 2020 for return to Earth in 2023.
The New Year’s Eve milestone occurred a day before another NASA explorer, New Horizons, was set to fly past an icy space rock beyond Pluto. The spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto hurtled toward a New Year’s Day rendezvous with a tiny, icy world a billion miles farther out, in what would make it the most distant cosmic body ever explored by humankind.
New Horizons was on course to fly past the mysterious, ancient object nicknamed Ultima Thule early Tuesday morning. The close encounter comes 3½ years after the spacecraft swung past Pluto.
This time, the drama was set to unfold more than 4 billion miles from Earth, so far away that it will be 10 hours before flight controllers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel find out whether the probe survived the flyby.
A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following that official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won’t be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in color, it is hoped.
“Today is the day we explore worlds farther than ever in history!! EVER,” tweeted the project’s lead scientist, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.