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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

Biden will reverse Trump's attempt to lift COVID-related travel restrictions

Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty

The incoming Biden administration will reverse President Trump's last-minute order to lift COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, tweeted.

Why it matters: President Trump ordered entry bans lifted for travelers from the U.K., Ireland, Brazil and much of Europe to go into effect Jan. 26, but the Biden administration will "strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Jen Psaki said. Biden will be inaugurated on Wednesday, Jan. 20 and Trump will no longer be president by the time the order is set to go into effect.

Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems on Monday sent a cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell over his spread of misinformation related to the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump and several of his allies have pushed false conspiracy theories about the company, leading Dominion to take legal action. It's suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation and $1.3 billion in damages, and a Dominion employee has sued Trump himself, OANN and Newsmax.

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.