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Earth’s Gravity Just Helped Sling A NASA Spacecraft Towards An Asteroid

A NASA spacecraft just got some help from Earth’s gravity to help sling it towards an asteroid.

The space agency’s OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft flew roughly 11,000 miles above Antarctica at 12:52 p.m. ET, and used the planet’s gravity to re-orient its position so it could then fly to the Bennu asteroid, NASA said Friday.

The goal is for the spacecraft to collect samples like minerals and clay from the asteroid and return to earth so scientists can study the universe’s origins. NASA and its partners at the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin said the Bennu asteroid “may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans.”

The space vehicle’s long name stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. NASA originally launched the spacecraft to space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept. 8, 2016, but it still needed some assistance to get it on the right path.

The Earth’s gravity altered the spacecraft’s direction and helped propel it towards the Bennu asteroid without using excess fuel, NASA said. The OSIRIS-Rex is scheduled to reach Bennu in late 2018.

Over the next two weeks on three subsequent days, the OSIRIS-Rex will scan the Earth and Moon in order for scientists to evaluate and calibrate its data-gleaning tools before it reaches the asteroid.

Once the spacecraft reaches Bennu, it will then scan and map the asteroid while preparing to collect samples. In July 2020, NASA expects the spacecraft to fly near the asteroid’s surface, where an 11-foot mechanical arm will extend for five seconds and grab 2 ounces of rocks and dust.

NASA said that OSIRIS-Rex would return to Earth in September 2023.