NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe arrived at Bennu last week and has already discovered hydrated minerals on the 1,640-foot-wide (500 meters) near-Earth asteroid, according to an announcement made by mission team members.
The finding suggests that liquid water once abounded in the interior of Bennu’s parent body, which scientists believe was an approximately 62-mile-wide (100 kilometres) rock in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (It is likely that Bennu is a pile of rubble that fused after a massive impact shattered that larger object hundreds of millions of years ago.)
The primary objective for OSIRIS-REx is focused on helping scientists learn more about the solar system’s early days and the role that asteroids like Bennu may have played in delivering water and the chemical building blocks of life to Earth. Thus, finding these hydrated minerals marks an essential step for the mission team.
During a news conference at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona, said that they had set their sights on Bennu precisely because they believed it had water-bearing minerals and, due to the carbonaceous chondrite meteorites they’ve been studying, they also believed it had organic material.
However, Lauretta added that as of now they had not detected any organic material — but it looks like they’ve gone to the right asteroid.
The spacecraft’s measurements conducted in the past four months by it’s two onboard spectrometers uncovered the presence of molecules containing hydroxyls — bonded-together oxygen and hydrogen atoms — on Bennu. Mission scientists believe these hydroxyls are widespread across the asteroid, locked into clay minerals.
The OSIRIS-REx mission (whose name stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer”), which costs $800 million launched in September 2016 and started its Bennu-approach phase in mid-August 2018.
Moreover, scientists announced that OSIRIS-REx’s observations essentially confirm Bennu shape models devised a five years ago by researchers using radar data collected by the Arecibo and Goldstone dishes here on Earth. Lauretta said that’s good news since the mission team based their plans on those earlier shape models.
NASA also released OSIRIS-REx’s best look at Bennu to date. The stunning photo was taken on Dec. 2 right before the spacecraft’s official asteroid arrival. It portrays Bennu in unprecedented detail and sheds light on the rugged nature of its surface.
Team members still have plenty of time to select and characterize a sampling site; OSIRIS-REx isn’t scheduled to grab any Bennu bits until July 2020.
This material will be sent back to Earth in a special return capsule in September 2023. Scientists from all over the planet can then analyze the sample using different laboratory equipment, making observations that address the primary mission goals, and numerous other questions.
For instance, the mission could help researchers learn more about the resource potential of asteroids like Bennu such as, whether they hold enough available water to support in-space mining operations.
Plus, OSIRIS-REx’s measurements at Bennu will unveil crucial details about the forces that affect asteroids’ paths through space, which should help tweak predictions of the trajectories of possibly dangerous space rocks, according to NASA officials.
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