Bennu's rugged surface erupting plumes may change NASA's landing plans
22 March, 2019, 20:30 | Author: Dwayne Harmon
NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has only been orbiting the asteroidBennu for a few months but mission scientists have already learned new details about the near-Earth asteroid that is 70 million miles away, according to a NASA announcement.
Curiously, however, at least four larger chunks of debris have remained in orbit around Bennu, potentially forming micro moons. Now the team is looking for smaller areas to target, and adjusting its sampling plan to do a more precise touch-and-go maneuver. The origin of these plumes and what exactly triggers them remains a mystery.
"That has never been seen before in any solar-system object", Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson told Marina Koren at The Atlantic.
The mission team is now updating its plans for sample collection, known as Touch-and-Go (TAG); the new approach, called Bullseye TAG, aims to accurately target smaller sites.
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'Bennu has issued us a challenge to deal with its rugged terrain, and we are confident that OSIRIS-Rex is up to the task, ' says Rich Burns, the project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started", Lauretta said.
An artist's concept of the OSIRIS-REx's sample collection instrument TAGSAM. Image courtesy NASA
The OSIRIS-REx team also didn't anticipate the number and size of boulders on Bennu's surface. Not only is Bennu shooting particles out into the void, but the asteroid is also much more rugged than scientists originally thought - which may make it a little bit harder for the spacecraft to grab a sample. A ridge round Bennu's equator is likely one of the asteroid's most outstanding options, together with quite a few boulders, a few of that are as large as a multi-story workplace constructing.
"The first three months of OSIRIS-REx's up-close investigation of Bennu have reminded us what discovery is all about - surprises, quick thinking and flexibility", said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division.
Professor Trevor Ireland, from ANU, will analyse samples of the asteroid once they are returned to Earth in 2023. One concept into consideration by OSIRIS-REx's science workforce is that the plume outbursts could be associated with Bennu's place in its orbit across the solar. Consequently, NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission - one of the most ambitious space missions ever attempted - is studying the distant asteroid to unlock its secrets.
"That gives me confidence they will be able to attempt a sample acquisition", he said.
Bennu is slightly wider than the height of the Empire State Building, according to NASA. "We study asteroids like Bennu to learn about the origin of the solar system". But the team is particularly eager to sample a site high in magnetite, as it could paint a picture of how much water and organic material was present in Bennu's past. The asteroid is on an oval-formed path that takes it directly inside Earth's orbit at its closest level to the solar, and there's a 1-in-2,700 likelihood Bennu might influence Earth late within the 22nd century. However, Bennu is a carbonaceous (or C-type) asteroid composed of various rocks and minerals with a smattering of carbon-containing compounds.
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