Risky asteroid landed a research probe

Olive Hawkins
December 6, 2018

"Now that we've arrived, we will explore [Bennu's] surface through a series of flybys and orbital campaigns that allow us to determine which areas on Bennu are the safest and have material that can be ingested by our sampling mechanism", Daniella DellaGiustina of the University of Arizona told Sky and Telescope.

Sitting at mission control at the Denver offices of Lockheed Martin, which operates the spacecraft for NASA, engineer Javi Cerna waited for the signal indicating OSIRIS-REx had begun the burn needed to bring it close to its target.

Bennu - named after a mythological Egyptian deity by a third-grade contest victor - is one of the most hazardous asteroids known to NASA because of its large size and orbit.

Flight controllers applauded and exchanged high-fives on Monday once confirmation came through that Osiris-Rex made it to Bennu - exactly one week after Nasa landed a spacecraft on Mars.

"Initial data from the approach phase show this object to have exceptional scientific value", said Dante Lauretta, the mission's principal investigator. "To Bennu and back!"

The OSIRIS-REx, after some moments of drama caused by the explosion of a Falcon 9 on a nearby launch pad and some quick work to ensure that this incident would not cause a loss of cooling capability to the spacecraft on its launch pad, launched successfully on September 8, 2016, at 7:05 pm Eastern Daylight Time. I mentioned Bennu's orbit is Earth-like; in fact it gets close enough to Earth that's considered a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid, capable of impacting Earth.

The spacecraft will commence flyovers of Bennu's north pole, equatorial region, and south pole, getting as close as almost 4 miles (7 kilometers) above Bennu during each flyover. It is a carbon-rich, near-Earth asteroid, believed to have been created by the leftovers from the formation of the solar system.

Stowing the sample
Stowing the sample

"With asteroids, you have a time capsule".

A Japanese spacecraft has been documenting another close-to-Earth asteroid called Ryugu since June. It is Japan's second asteroid mission. The spacecraft will pass just 1.2 miles from Bennu in late December, where it will enter the object's gravitational pull. The spacecraft won't land but use a three-metre mechanical arm in 2020 to momentarily touch down and pick up particles. The sample container would break loose and head toward Earth in 2021.

The amount of samples will be the largest since the Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972 that brought back 382 kilograms of moon rock, pebble and stone samples.

Knowing the mass of this 1,600-foot-wide asteroid will reveal valuable information about not just Bennu, but other chunks of space debris, too, Scheeres said. That means they could smack Earth years from now.

Contact with Bennu will not significantly change its orbit or make it more unsafe to us, Lauretta stressed.

Moreover, the mission could also help them better understand the threat that asteroids may pose to humans on Earth, since Bennu itself may impact Earth within a few centuries.

Osiris-Rex is the first United States mission created to return a piece of an asteroid to Earth.

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