Thursday, 24 October, 2019

Asteroid Bennu: Scientists stumped by plumes ejected in outer space

NASA Says Taking Sample From Asteroid Bennu Harder Than Expected NASA's plan to scoop up dirt from asteroid hits a snag
Sandra Phillips | 22 March, 2019, 20:29

Launched in 2016, OSIRIS-REx is tasked with eventually grabbing a sample from Bennu and then returning it back to Earth, to help scientists better study asteroids - remnants of the early Solar System.

"Throughout OSIRIS-REx's operations near Bennu, our spacecraft and operations team have demonstrated that we can achieve system performance that beats design requirements", said Rich Burns, the mission's project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. These instruments will help it determine a safe location from which to collect a small sample from Bennu's surface that will be returned to Earth in September 2023.

Bennu is full of surprises, NASA said in a recent statement. This is the first time scientists have had close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid's surface, the agency said.

"The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career", Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in a NASA news release. "Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started", Lauretta said.

Bits of material were first spotted floating up from Bennu on January 6, shortly after OSIRIS-REx went into an orbit that brought about a mile away from the quarter-mile-wide asteroid. Not only is the surface remarkably rugged, but the asteroid is also regularly ejecting puffs of dust and rock into space. This means the planned Touch-and-Go (TAG) portion of the mission will need to be adjusted.

The mission - which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer - is NASA's first asteroid sample return mission.

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The larger number of boulders and the smaller sample site is also expected to require much more precise maneuvering by the spacecraft during its descent to the surface.

Another unexpected find was the number and size of boulders on the asteroid's surface.

The spacecraft, called Osiris-Rex, is scheduled to descend close to the surface in the summer of 2020.

United States space agency NASA says it will seek advice from Japan's Hayabusa2 project team on how to land a probe on the rocky surface of an asteroid.

Ideally, the mission team wants a sample site clear of hazards that is over 150 feet in diameter. The mission team is developing an updated approach, called Bullseye TAG, to accurately target smaller sample sites. Now that OSIRIS-REx has revealed Bennu's surface up close, those expectations of a smoother surface have been proven wrong. Additionally, the mission team is going to have to come up with a very sophisticated map of Bennu's surface.

In addition to the particle plumes and rocky terrain, OSIRIS-REx's scientists are reporting a change in Bennu's rotation rate, due to a cycle of heating and cooling known as the Yarkovsky-O'Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack effect, or YORP effect. OSIRIS-REx's observations also appear to confirm the presence of hydrated minerals all over the ancient object. With their hydrated minerals, Bennu or similar objects might have even gifted our planet with some of its water in the distant past. Without the equipment to pulverize these hunks of rock, OSIRIS-REx might be ill-equipped to navigate the terrain for touchdown.

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