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New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx spot their targets

Ultima Thule
The picture on the left was created by adding 48 different exposures from the LORRI camera on NASA’s New Horizons probe. The picture on the right has been processed to subtract the light from background stars, leaving an icy object known as Ultima Thule shining dimly in the crosshairs. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Photo)

The next few months are due to bring two amazing interplanetary encounters: a rendezvous with an asteroid and a flyby past a mysterious icy object beyond Pluto on the solar system’s edge. Over the past few days, we’ve gotten our first fleeting peeks at both targets, and the view will only get better from now on.

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NASA shows off OSIRIS-REx’s snapshot of Earth

OSIRIS-REx view of Earth
This color composite image of Earth was taken by the MapCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Sept. 22, just hours after the spacecraft completed its Earth gravity assist maneuver at a range of about 106,000 miles. (NASA GSFC / Univ. of Arizona Photo)

During last week’s flyby, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured a stunning portrait of Earth’s disk, spanning the Pacific from Australia to America’s West Coast.

The color composite image, created from readings that were captured on Sept. 22 while the asteroid probe zoomed past at an altitude of 106,000 miles, was released by NASA and the University of Arizona today.

You can make out Australia at lower left, and the southwestern U.S. at upper right.

The photo op arose because OSIRIS-REx’s mission navigators took advantage of Earth’s gravitational field to slingshot the 20-foot-wide probe toward the asteroid Bennu, which it’s due to reach in late 2018.

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Asteroid probe buzzes Earth as its fans watch

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

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.

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OSIRIS-REx begins round-trip flight to asteroid

Image: OSIRIS-REx launch
An Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe into space. (Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA)

NASA launched its OSIRIS-REx probe today on America’s first mission to snag samples from a near-Earth asteroid and bring them back to Earth – and added a Star Trek twist.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, tricked out with a single solid rocket booster, sent up the car-sized spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:05 p.m. ET (4:05 p.m. PT) today. Crowds gathered around the launch site to watch, and myriads more kept an eye on NASA TV’s video stream.

As NASA launch commentator Mike Curie announced OSIRIS-REx’s liftoff, he gave a nod to the “Star Trek” TV saga, which made its U.S. premiere 50 years ago today.

“Its seven-year mission: to boldly go to the asteroid Bennu and back,” said Curie, echoing the show’s traditional intro.

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Watch asteroid hunters play the Xtronaut game

Image: Xtronaut game
The Xtronaut board game gives players a taste of the science, economics and politics behind planning an interplanetary robotic mission. (Credit: Xtronaut via Amazon)

Watching a couple of guys play a board game on streaming video may not sound exciting – unless those two guys also play the real-life asteroid-hunting game.

That’s precisely the situation facing Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources, based in Redmond, Wash.; and Dante Lauretta, a University of Arizona professor who’s the principal investigator for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.

They’ll be battling over the playing board – and discussing developments in asteroid science and exploration – during a Google Hangout that starts at 11 a.m. PT Friday.

The game in question is Xtronaut, a simplified simulation of the mission-planning process for interplanetary robotic exploration. Lauretta’s the co-creator of the board game, which lifted off last year thanks to Kickstarter.

“We have been playing this game in the office, and can assure you it is JUST like planning a real mission,” Lewicki says on the YouTube page touting the Hangout.

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