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NASA’s asteroid chaser swings by Earth en route to space rock

This illustration provided by NASA depicts the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and the Earth. On Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, the probe will use Earth's gravity to put it on a path toward the asteroid Bennu. (Conceptual Image Lab/Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA via AP)
Conceptual Image Lab/Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA
This illustration provided by NASA depicts the Osiris-Rex spacecraft and the Earth.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s asteroid-chasing spacecraft swung by Earth on Friday on its way to a space rock.

Launched a year ago, Osiris-Rex passed within about 11,000 miles of the home planet Friday afternoon — above Antarctica. It needed Earth’s gravity as a slingshot to put it on a path toward the asteroid Bennu.

Osiris-Rex should reach the small, roundish asteroid next year and, in 2020, collect some of its gravel for return to Earth. If all goes well, scientists should get the samples in 2023.

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Friday’s flyby is a quick hello: The spacecraft zoomed by at about 19,000 miles per hour. NASA took precautions to ensure that Osiris-Rex — about the size of an SUV — does not slam into any satellites.

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‘‘Everything looks great! Thanks for the well wishes,’’ the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, chief scientist for Osiris-Rex, said late Thursday via Twitter.

Ground telescopes attempted to observe the spacecraft while it was in the neighborhood. NASA posted a picture gallery online.

NASA was out of contact with Osiris-Rex for about an hour during the flyby. The spacecraft was too close for the Deep Space Network for communication relay.

Bennu is just 1,640 feet or so across and circles the sun in an orbit slightly wider than ours. Osiris-Rex will go into orbit around the asteroid and seek the best spot for grabbing a few handfuls of the bite-size bits of rock. It will hover like a hummingbird as a mechanical arm briefly rests on the surface and sucks in samples stirred up by nitrogen gas thrusters.

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Scientists say the ancient asteroid could hold clues to the origin of life. It’s believed to have formed 4.5 billion years ago, a remnant of the solar system’s building blocks.

This is the first US attempt to bring back samples from an asteroid. Japan has visited an asteroid and returned some specks.

Associated Press