NASA has set a new record after its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft orbited the asteroid Bennu closer than ever before. The spacecraft’s new orbital phase was executed in preparation for the sample collection procedure of the mission.

On June 12, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft entered the latest phase of its mission known as Orbital B. In this stage, the spacecraft moved to its closest distance to Bennu at only 680 meters, which is half of its previous record-breaking orbit of 1.3 kilometers, the OSIRIS-REx mission team said in a statement.

By orbiting within striking distance of the asteroid, the spacecraft will be able to carry out more detailed observations on Bennu’s surface by taking frequent images of its surface. One aspect that the spacecraft aims to uncover is the explanation behind the particles that shoot off from the surface of the asteroid.

Aside from this, OSIRIS-REx will carry out various mapping tasks on Bennu using different onboard instruments. These include creating a full terrain map using the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter and producing X-ray and infrared charts of the asteroid through the Thermal Emission and the Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometers.

The data that will be collected from these procedures will be used to analyze potential sample collection sites. Through the data, NASA aims to pinpoint a location on the asteroid where OSIRIS-REx will be able to safely collect samples.

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to remain in its Orbital B course until August. If everything goes well for the spacecraft during the current phase of its mission, it will transition to Orbital C and return to its original altitude of 1.3 kilometers from the asteroid’s surface.

During this phase, NASA will use the data gathered during Orbital B to carry out its sample collection assignment.

First launched in Sept. 8, 2016, OSIRIS-REx is currently on a seven-year asteroid exploration mission. The spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth in 2023. Its main objective is to study Bennu, a near-Earth object, and bring back sample from the asteroid to Earth.

According to NASA, analyzing a sample from a primitive asteroid such as Bennu will provide a deeper understanding of how the Solar System was formed over 4.5 billion years ago.

OSIRIS-Rex NASA will launch the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, designed to map an asteroid and return samples to Earth, later this year. The spacecraft will take roughly two years to reach the asteroid “Bennu,” which was selected because of the possible presence of organic molecules on its surface. Photo: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center