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OSIRIS-REx's chosen landing site on Bennu. Photo: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft — designed to snag a piece of an asteroid and deliver it back to Earth — officially has a sample collection site.

Why it matters: Asteroids are thought to be leftovers from the dawn of the solar system, so the sample that OSIRIS-REx gets from the asteroid Bennu could help scientists piece together the history of planetary formation and even how organic compounds made it to Earth.

Details: The sample site was carefully picked by mission controllers after a year of studying Bennu's rocky surface.

  • The site — named Nightingale — is in a crater in the northern part of the asteroid.
  • Nightingale contains smooth surface material that has likely been well-preserved by cold temperatures, making the site relatively safe and scientifically interesting for the spacecraft to sample, NASA said.
  • When the time comes, OSIRIS-REx will perform a touch-and-go maneuver that will bring the spacecraft's sampler into contact with the asteroid's surface for about five seconds before the orbiter moves away from the space rock.

Yes, but: Nightingale still comes with risks.

  • There is an area of only 52 feet within Nightingale that's safe for OSIRIS-REx to touch, meaning the spacecraft will need to be very exact in order to sample safely.
  • NASA has also selected a site called Osprey as a backup sample site if Nightingale doesn't work out.

The intrigue: Bennu's boulder-heavy surface has complicated the hunt for a safe sample site.

  • "The team has adapted by employing a more accurate, though more complex, optical navigation technique to be able to get into these small areas," Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager said in a statement. "We'll also arm OSIRIS-REx with the capability to recognize if it is on course to touch a hazard within or adjacent to the site and wave-off before that happens."

What's next: In January, OSIRIS-REx will continue to fly over Nightingale and Osprey, mapping out the two sites in great detail through the spring, NASA said.

  • Once mapped, the probe will rehearse its sample collection before making its first sampling attempt in August 2020.
  • OSIRIS-REx is expected to leave Bennu behind in 2021 and return to Earth two years later, in 2023.

Go deeper: NASA spacecraft arrives at near-Earth asteroid Bennu

Go deeper

6 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats target billionaires

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

After failing to get a deal on other planned tax increases, key Senate Democrats are pivoting to a billionaires' income tax to pay for President Biden's social spending.

The big picture: No advanced economy has attempted anything similar on such a scale.

Anti-abortion activists' Supreme Court dreams are coming true

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photos: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

This is the moment the conservative legal movement has been building toward for decades: The solidly conservative Supreme Court is about to hear two major abortion cases within a month of each other.

Why it matters: All of this is likely to end with significant new restrictions on abortion and a clear path for Republican-led states to win the next big abortion cases, too — the culmination of a long and bitter fight for control of the judiciary.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
5 hours ago - Economy & Business

Trump's volatile return to the stock market

Expand chart
Data: YCharts; Chart: Axios Visuals 

Donald Trump this week became both a meme stock and a social-media entrepreneur at the same time, by announcing that a new company called Trump Media & Technology Group was going to merge with an existing company listed on the stock market.

Why it matters: The medium-term promise of Trump's media company is that it will replace Twitter for anybody wanting to keep track of Trump's messages. The short-term promise is that it can be a hot new speculative vehicle for people wanting to get rich quick in the stock market.