NASA's plan to scoop up dirt from asteroid hits a snag

The asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on January 19. Image Credit NASA  Goddard  University of Arizona  Lockheed Martin

This view of asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on January 19 was created by combining two images taken by the NavCam 1 imager onboard NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft: a short exposure image (1.4 ms), which shows the asteroid clearly, and a long exposure image (5 sec), which shows the particles clearly.

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 mission - which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer - is NASA's first asteroid sample return mission. And the rugged terrain went against all of our predictions.

"Bennu is already surprising us", Lauretta said.

It was determined that the particles ejecting off the asteroid didn't pose any danger to the spacecraft, so the team continued to observe the plumes and their possible causes.

While some of the particles were slow-moving, the others were found orbiting Bennu, like small satellites.

The scientists were also surprised by Bennu's terrain, which is covered with large boulders. 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. Based on the group's calculations, the region around Bennu's equator is trapped within a gravitational feature called a rotational Roche lobe-something that scientists had not yet clearly observed on an asteroid.

As OSIRIS-REx surveys asteroid Bennu in detail, the mission team is beginning to identify potential locations for the spacecraft to collect a sample.

A series of papers published this week report the early findings from the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu.

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First, Bennu's surface, which to ground observations appears smooth, is actually a rough landscape strewn with boulders measuring 1-10 yards across. Instead, it discovered Bennu's entire surface is rough and dense with boulders. This means the planned Touch-and-Go (TAG) portion of the mission will need to be adjusted.

The original plan was to find a hazard-free site with a 25-meter (82-foot) radius, but that looks unlikely now. It detected the existence of water locked inside the clays, indicating that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu's parent body, a much larger asteroid.

"We feel confident that our teams and our systems are up to the task to collecting from a much smaller area", said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager, with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

OSIRIS-REx will now have to be flown to a smaller area where boulders are less concentrated. This suggests the computer models used to interpret previous data do not adequately predict the nature of small, rocky, asteroid surfaces.

Bennu also threw a literal curveball at the science team.

Scientists believe this is due to the Yarkovsky-O'Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack (YORP) effect, in which variations in surface reflectivity and temperature affect a body's spin rate.

The uneven heating and cooling of Bennu as it rotates in sunlight is causing the asteroid to increase its rotation speed.

An artist's concept of the OSIRIS-REx's sample collection instrument, TAGSAM. OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 were two missions that were subject of briefings today and NASA held its own OSIRIS-REx media teleconference this afternoon.

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