Dec. 4 (UPI) -- After two years in space, the NASA probe OSIRIS-REx has reached its target, the asteroid Bennu.
The spacecraft executed a maneuver to transition from flying toward Bennu to flying around the distant asteroid on Monday -- its 1.6-billion-mile journey officially complete.
"The OSIRIS-REx team is proud to cross another major milestone off our list -- asteroid arrival," Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in a news release.
For the next year, the probe will circle and study Bennu, executing a series of flybys to a close look at some its unique features. The spacecraft will swoop by the asteroid's equator and poles. A few approaches will put the probe within 4.4 miles of the asteroid's surface.
The flybys will allow the spacecraft and mission scientists to map the surface of Bennu in unprecedented detail, as well refine estimates of the asteroid's mass and spin rate. The new data will help scientists better understand how asteroids form and evolve.
Updated maps will also help OSIRIS-REx perfect its orbit around the asteroid, as well as identify points of scientific interest. The data will also help scientists choose where OSIRIS-REx will reach down with its robotic arm and scoop up regolith -- rocks and dust -- from Bennu's surface.
Samples collected from Bennu's surface could offer clues to its origins and help scientists better understand what the early solar system was like.
The 1,614-foot-wide space rock belongs to a collection of near-Earth asteroids known as the Apollo group -- a group scientists think formed when the solar system was in its infancy.
NASA scientists chose 101955 Bennu for the OSIRIS-REx mission because of its unique supply of unadulterated carbonaceous material, one of the building blocks of life. Researchers believe asteroid collisions may have provided early Earth with the biochemicals necessary for life.
OSIRIS-REx won't attempt to scoop up rocks and dust from Benn's surface for another year, but the spacecraft has been collecting data valuable data for last few months as part of its approach phase.
"During our approach toward Bennu, we have taken observations at much higher resolution than were available from Earth," said Rich Burns, the project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "These observations have revealed an asteroid that is both consistent with our expectations from ground-based measurements and an exceptionally interesting small world. Now we embark on gaining experience flying our spacecraft about such a small body."