Introduction

Only a few robotic spacecraft have encountered asteroids up close. Here are some highlights of those missions:

NASA's Dawn spacecraft was launched in 2007 to explore asteroid Vesta, the second most massive body in the main asteroid belt. Dawn arrived at Vesta in 2011, then orbited and explored Vesta for over a year before leaving in September 2012 to explore dwarf planet Ceres.

Asteroid Vesta
This mosaic shows some of the Dawn spacecraft's best views of asteroid Vesta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

Japan's Hayabusa2 was launched in December 2014 on a six-year voyage to study asteroid Ryugu, and to collect samples to bring back to Earth for analysis. Hayabusa2 arrived at the asteroid in June 2018. The spacecraft deployed rovers and landers onto Ryugu’s surface, and collected a sample. Hayabusa2 delivered the asteroid sample to Earth on Dec. 6, 2020.

Launched on Sept. 8, 2016, NASA's OSIRIS-REx arrived at near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018, and collected a sample of dust and rocks. On April 9, 2021, the spacecraft took one last look at Bennu before beginning its journey back to Earth. It's on track to deliver the asteroid sample to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023.

OSIRIS-REx TAG
On Oct. 20, 2020, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft conducted its Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection event. This series of images shows the SamCam imager’s field of view as the spacecraft approaches and briefly touches Bennu’s surface. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA's NEOWISE spacecraft is orbiting Earth to improve on the most accurate survey of near-Earth objects ever undertaken.

The Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based radar observatories also contribute regularly to our understanding of asteroids. Several more missions, including NASA's Psyche and Lucy, missions are in development to keep exploring these small worlds. Scientists also use ground-based radar to explore nearby asteroids whenever possible.

Exploration Highlights

More Exploration Highlights

  • NASA's Galileo mission was the first spacecraft to fly past an asteroid. It flew past asteroid Gaspara in 1991 and Ida in 1993.
  • NASA's Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR-Shoemaker) mission studied asteroids Mathilde, and Eros.
  • The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko also flew by asteroid (2867) Steins in 2008, and asteroid Lutetia in 2010.
  • Deep Space 1 and Stardust both had close encounters with asteroids.
  • In 2005, the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa landed on the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa and attempted to collect samples. On June 3, 2010, Hayabusa successfully returned to Earth a small amount of asteroid dust now being studied by scientists.
Notable Explorers

Missions

Careers

10 Careers That Explore Space

1

Astronaut

Astronauts pave the way for human exploration beyond our Earth. They are pilots, scientists, engineers, teachers, and more.

2

Project Manager

Project managers guide missions from concept to completion, working closely with team members to accomplish what they set out to do.  

3

Rover Camera Operator

A camera payload uplink lead writes software commands that tell a rover what pictures to take.

The first thing that fired my imagination for planetary science was when the NASA Voyager spacecraft discovered active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io.

4

Artist

Melding science with design, artists create everything from large-scale installations to the NASA posters hanging in your bedroom. 

5

Media Specialist

Media specialists tells stories across social media and help feature missions and people on TV and in films, books, magazines, and news sites. 

6

Writer/Producer

Writers/producers capture the incredible stories of NASA's missions and people and share them with the world. 

7

Administrator/Director

Administrators and directors work out of NASA headquarters, prioritizing science questions and seeking to expand the frontiers of discovery.

8

Educator

Whether it's introducing kids to space or teaching physics to PhD candidates, educators help share their knowledge with the public.

9

Engineer

Engineers design and build all types of machines, from what a spacecraft looks like to the software that directs where a rover goes each day. 

10

Scientist

From an astrophysicist to a volcanologist, scientists of all types pose questions and help find answers to the mysteries of our universe.

The important thing about being a scientist or an engineer is learning how to think critically, learning how to be creative, learning problem solving and learning how to learn.

Explore in 3D

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› Explore in 3D

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