NASA's OSIRIS-REx probe arrives at asteroid Bennu

Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

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 previous year and is expected to return a sample in 2020.

Osiris-Rex, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith EXplorer, began its journey in 2016 with a launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The agency describes Bennu as "a carbonaceous asteroid whose regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system". Additionally, Bennu might help astronomers study how asteroids move through space and how they could be mined for resources in the future.

Asteroid Bennu, which Osiris-Rex will spend the next few years studying, is said to be a carbon-rich hunk of rock that might contain organic materials or molecular precursors to life. It is the smallest object ever to be orbited by a human-made spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx was finally at the doorstep of its new home. Its orbit switches between those of Earth and Mars, making it what's officially called a "near-Earth asteroid". During this contact, the arm will use a nitrogen gas burst to stir up rock and other materials on the surface so it can capture them.

The arm has a full range of motion, with joints capable of movement comparable to shoulder, elbow and wrist joints.

This November 16, 2018 photo from NASA s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, obtained December 3, 2018 courtesy of NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona, shows the asteroid Bennu from a distance of 85 miles (136 km).

"With asteroids, you have a time capsule".

About the size of an SUV, the spacecraft will shadow the asteroid for a year, before scooping up some gravel for return to Earth in 2023.

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The sample container will then break free from Osirus Rex and head towards Earth in 2021, parachuting down to Utah. The sample will be returned to Earth through a freefall method from space. Researchers will provide a more precise description at a scientific meeting on Monday next week in Washington. "You have a pristine sample of what the solar system was like billions of years ago", said Michelle Thaller, a spokeswoman for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The asteroid fits a number of criteria that make it intriguing and convenient. It is theorized from the study of the orbit of Bennu that the gravity interaction between the two bodies during a close approach to Earth in 2060 (466,000 miles) will slightly alter its course.

Let's start with destruction; scientists estimate there is a one-in-2,700 chance of the asteroid slamming catastrophically into Earth 166 years from now.

Osiris Rex carries a camera able to see objects as small as a penny.

The asteroid could pass close to Earth, closer than the moon, in 2135, with even closer approaches possible in 2175 and 2195. Learning more about asteroids can help NASA prepare for the threat of a potential impact.

It is believed that on this asteroid, water which is another vital component to the evolution of life may also be trapped in the asteroid's minerals.

Bennu, a rocky mass roughly a third of a mile wide and shaped like a giant acorn, orbits the sun at roughly the same distance as Earth and is thought to be rich in carbon-based organic molecules dating back to the earliest days of the solar system.

"But while the spacecraft might tell us some things about where we have been and where we are headed, it also can remind us of where we are right now", NASA officials said in a statement.

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