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OSIRIS-REx
Artwork shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft passing by Earth. (NASA GSFC / Univ. of Arizona Illustration)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft took pictures — and had its picture taken — as it zoomed past Earth today on its way to the asteroid Bennu.

The close encounter served as much more than a photo op: OSIRIS-REx’s gravity-assist maneuver was an essential part of its trajectory toward Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid that’s currently more than 31 million miles away.

OSIRIS-REx came as close as 10,711 miles to Earth at 9:52 a.m. PT, blazing over Antarctica at a relative speed of 19,000 mph. That’s so close that NASA had to take care to make sure the 20-foot-wide spacecraft didn’t hit any orbiting satellites.

The maneuver boosted OSIRIS-REx’s speed and shifted its course to put it on track to rendezvous with the 1,650-foot-wide asteroid in late 2018.

“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 University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, who is the principal investigator for the $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission, said in a NASA news release.

OSIRIS-REx is a tortured acronym that stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer.” The craft is designed to map the asteroid’s surface, collect samples and return them to Earth in 2023.

Scientists expect the mission to help them gain a better understanding of how asteroids fit into the tale of the solar system’s origins, what resources could be found in asteroids, and how to divert a potentially threatening asteroid. There’s a slight possibility that Bennu itself could threaten Earth in the late 22nd century.

This week, however, OSIRIS-REx and its target are causes for celebration: NASA encouraged astronomers to take pictures of the probe as it passed by, and urged space fans to post greetings on social media with the hashtag #HelloOSIRISREx.

Doug Ellison, a visualization producer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, captured a long-exposure image of OSIRIS-REx zooming through the view of a remotely operated telescope at Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory:

For more OSIRIS-REx snapshopts, keep an eye on the real-time image gallery at SpaceWeather.com.

Meanwhile, the #HelloOSIRISREx selfies are streaming in from around the world. Here are a few greetings from Seattle’s neck of the woods:

The hits will just keep coming over the next few days: OSIRIS-REx is capturing imagery and data during its Earth flyby to get ready for next year’s asteroid encounter.

“The opportunity to collect science data over the next two weeks provides the OSIRIS-REx mission team with an excellent opportunity to practice for operations at Bennu,” Lauretta said. “During the Earth flyby, the science and operations teams are co-located, performing daily activities together as they will during the asteroid encounter.”

Some of the Earth images acquired during the flyby will be shared during a news conference at the University of Arizona scheduled for 1 p.m. PT Tuesday.

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