Asteroid Bennu Has Got a Visitor from Planet Earth

Leonid Kulik  NASA  Wikipedia

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (Nasa's) deep-space explorer Osiris-Rex flew on Monday to within 19km of its destination, a skyscraper-sized asteroid believed to hold organic compounds fundamental to life as well as the potential to collide with Earth in about 150 years.

"During our approach toward Bennu, we have taken observations at much higher resolution than were available from Earth", said Rich Burns, the project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

OSIRIS-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer), if successful, will be the first United States spacecraft to return an asteroid sample to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx will continue doing this over the next four weeks, during close flybys over Bennu's north pole, equator and south pole that will bring the probe as close as 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) to the asteroid's surface. I'll be very happy to see the super-close-up images we'll be getting in the coming days.

Yet Bennu's small size also makes it possible for OSIRIS-REx to perform a series of carefully choreographed hairpin maneuvers around the asteroid.

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Once the required scientific data is collected, the spacecraft will depart Benny in 2021, and come down to Earth in 2023, if all goes according to the plan.

This set of 16 images shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft's steady approach toward the asteroid Bennu during the last half of October 2018.

The sample from Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid, could help scientists understand not only more about asteroids that could impact Earth but about how planets formed and life began.

The spacecraft will also carry a laser altimeter, a suite of cameras provided by the University of Arizona, spectrometers and lidar, which is similar to radar, using light instead of radio waves to measure distance. OSIRIS-REx will actually need to spend a good deal of time hanging out in orbit around Bennu before it makes its move, so today is just confirmation of the probe's arrival.

"This does look a challenging surface", said Lauretta, gesturing to a blown-up image of Bennu. There is enough nitrogen for three attempts if the first is unsuccessful.

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The arm has a full range of motion, with joints capable of movement comparable to shoulder, elbow and wrist joints. At the time of the mission's asteroid selection in 2005, there were only 192 asteroids classified as Near Earth Objects that met NASA's proximity requirements. Today's milestone marks the end of a two-year journey to Bennu, and the start of a 1.5-year study period. By precisely measuring that pull, his team can begin to map out the asteroid's gravitational field, essential information for any spaceflight operation. Asteroid scientists are eager for "bonanza" of discoveries that await, as one researcher at mission control put it.

Asteroids are material left over from the early solar system, which means they offer a unique look into its early composition.

Studying the sample in terrestrial labs, scientists hope to uncover clues about the birth of the planets and the origins of Earth's water and life. Only five asteroids met all criteria.

The asteroid Bennu is of interest to Earth for another reason.

Read a story about CU Boulder alumni who have worked on the OSIRIS-REx mission at Lockheed Martin Space.

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"One of the big draws for asteroids is that they're leftovers from the formation of the solar system", said McMahon, a co-investigator on the mission. In short, Bennu could be an extraterrestrial gas station for future endeavors into deeper space, places like Mars, and beyond.

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