These are the Boulders OSIRIS-REx is Going to Use to Navigate Down to the Surface of Bennu

Meet OSIRIS-REx’s “Guide Boulders.”

When the NASA spacecraft first arrived at asteroid Bennu over a year ago, the surface of the asteroid was much different than expected. Instead of a surface with large, smooth areas, nearly the entire surface is covered in boulders. That meant that NASA had to do a re-think of the sampling procedure.

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Asteroid Bennu is Getting Some Official Names for its Surface Features

Late last summer, NASA and the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (a.k.a WGPSN) approved the naming convention for features on Bennu, the asteroid currently being orbited and studied by the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft. The naming theme chosen was “birds and bird-like creatures in mythology.”

The first twelve features thusly named have now been announced. But more importantly, some of these features will be instrumental in helping to guide OSIRIS-REx to the surface of the asteroid later this year.

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OSIRIS-REx did its Closest Flyover Yet, just 250 Meters Above its Sample Site

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is getting closer, physically and temporally, to its primary goal. The spacecraft arrived at Bennu at the end of 2018, and for just over a year it’s been studying the asteroid, searching for a suitable sampling site. To do that, it’s getting closer and closer.

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Even Though it Was Observing an Asteroid, OSIRIS-REx Accidentally Spotted a Black Hole

While the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was orbiting asteroid Bennu, one of the instruments on board happened to catch a glimpse of a black hole ‘out of the corner of its eye,’ so to speak.

While intently focusing on the asteroid, the Regolith X-Ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) happened to catch the X-rays from a newly flaring stellar mass black hole.  While the flare occurred 30 thousand light years away, the flash in distant space was visible just off the limb of asteroid Bennu, in the edge of the instrument’s field of view.

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OSIRIS-REx Flew 620 Meters Above its Landing Site. Confirms that it’s a Boulder-Strewn Nightmare, Just Like the Rest of Bennu

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft reached its target, asteroid Bennu (101955 Bennu), on December 3rd, 2018. Since then, the spacecraft has been examining the asteroid’s surface, looking for a suitable landing spot to collect a sample. The problem is, Bennu has a much rockier and challenging surface than initially thought.

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It’s Time to Decide. Where Should OSIRIS-REx Take a Sample from Bennu?

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx arrived at asteroid Bennu in December 2018. During the past year, it’s been imaging the surface of the asteroid extensively, looking for a spot to take a sample from. Though the spacecraft has multiple science objectives, and a suite of instruments to meet them, the sample return is the key objective.

Now, NASA has narrowed the choice down to four potential sampling locations on the surface of the asteroid.

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OSIRIS-REx has Finally Caught up with Asteroid Bennu. Let the Analysis and Sample Collection Commence!

The asteroid Bennu, as imaged by OSIRIS-REx from a distance of about 80 km. Image Credit: NASA/University of Arizona

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has reached its destination and is now in orbit around asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft travelled for over two years and covered more than 2 billion kms. It will spend a year in orbit, surveying the surface of the Potentially Hazardous Object (PHO) before settling on a location for the key phase of its mission: a sample return to Earth.

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Here’s the Earth and Moon Seen from OSIRIS-REx

On September 8th, 2016, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission was launched into space. In the coming months, this space probe will approach and then rendezvous with the asteroid 101955 Bennu – a Near-Earth Object (NEO) – for the sake of studying it. The mission will also acquire samples of the asteroid, which will be returned to Earth by 2023.

The OSIRIS-REx mission is an historic one, since it will be the first US spacecraft to conduct a sample-return mission with an asteroid. In the meantime, as the probe has makes its way further into space, it has been providing some truly breathtaking images of the journey. Consider the recently-released composite image of the Earth-Moon system, which NASA created using images that were taken by the probe on October 2nd, 2017.

The images were all taken by the probe’s MapCam instrument, a medium-range camera designed to capture images of outgassing around Bennu and help map its surface in color. On this occasion, it snapped three beautiful pictures of Earth and the Moon. These images were all taken when the spacecraft was at a distance of approximately 5 million km (3 million mi) from Earth – about 13 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

Black and white image of Earth taken by the OSIRIS-REx’s NavCam 1 instrument. Credit: NASA/OSIRIS-REx team and the University of Arizona

As part of the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS), which is operated by researchers at the University of Arizona, the CapCam has four color filters. To produce the image, three of them (b, v and w) were used as a blue, green and red filters and then stacked on top of each other. The Earth and Moon were each color-corrected, and the Moon was brightened to make it more easily visible.

A second image of planet Earth (shown above), was taken on September 22nd, 2017, by one of the probe’s navigational cameras (NavCam 1). As the name suggests, this instrument is intended to help OSIRIS-REx orient itself while making its journey to Bennu and while it studies the asteroid. This is done by tracking starfields in space (while in transit) and landmarks on Bennu’s surface once it has arrived.

The image was taken when OSIRIS-REx was at a distance of 110,000 km (69,000 mi) from Earth. This was just after the probe had completed an Earth gravity-assist maneuver, where it used Earth’s gravitational force to slingshot around its equator and pick up more speed. The original image (shown below) was rotated so that the North Pole would be pointed up and the entire image was enlarged to provide more detail.

As you can see in the altered image, North America is visible on the upper right portion, while Hurricane Maria and the remnants of Hurricane Jose are visible in the far upper-right. The acquisition of these images was the result of painstaking calculations and planning, which were performed in advance by engineers and navigation specialists on the mission team using software called Systems Tool Kit (STK).

Original image taken by the OSIRIS-REx NavCam 1 of Earth. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

These plans were developed to ensure that the probe would be able to snap pictures with precise timing, which were then uploaded to the spacecraft’s computer weeks ahead of time. Within hours of the probe executing its gravity-assist maneuver, crews on the ground were treated to the first images from the spacecraft’s navigational cameras, which confirmed that the probe was following the right path.

The probe is scheduled to reach Bennu in December of 2018, with approach operations commencing this coming August. Bennu is also expected to make a close pass with Earth several centuries from now, and could even collide with us by then. But for the time being, it represents a major opportunity to study the history and evolution of the Solar System, since it is essentially a remnant left over from its formation.

By studying this asteroid up close, and bringing samples back to Earth for further study, the OSRIS-REx mission could help us understand how life began on Earth and where the Solar System as a whole is headed. But in the meantime, the probe has been able to provide us with some beautiful snapshots of Earth, which serve to remind us all of certain things.

Much like Voyager 1‘s “Pale Blue Dot” photo, seeing Earth from space helps to drive home the fact that life is rare and precious. It also reminds us that we, as a species, are all in this together and completely and utterly dependent  on our planet and its ecosystems. Once in awhile, we need to be reminded of these things. Otherwise, we might do some stupid – like ruin it!

Further Reading: NASA

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Captures Lovely Blue Marble during Gravity Assist Swing-by to Asteroid Bennu

A color composite image of Earth taken on Sept. 22, 2017 by the MapCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft just hours after the spacecraft completed its Earth Gravity Assist at a range of approximately 106,000 miles (170,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission captured a lovely ‘Blue Marble’ image of our Home Planet during last Fridays (Sept. 22) successful gravity assist swing-by sending the probe hurtling towards asteroid Bennu for a rendezvous next August on a round trip journey to snatch pristine soil samples.

The newly released color composite image of Earth was taken on Sept. 22 by the spacecrafts MapCam camera.

It was taken at a range of approximately 106,000 miles (170,000 kilometers), just a few hours after OSIRIS-REx completed its critical Earth Gravity Assist (EGA) maneuver.

“NASA’s asteroid sample return spacecraft successfully used Earth’s gravity on Friday, Sept. 22 to slingshot itself on a path toward the asteroid Bennu, for a rendezvous next August,” the agency confirmed after receiving the eagerly awaited telemetry.

OSIRIS-Rex, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer, is NASA’s first ever asteroid sample return mission.

As it swung by Earth at 12:52 p.m. EDT on Sept. 22, OSIRIS-REx passed only 10,711 miles (17,237 km) above Antarctica, just south of Cape Horn, Chile.

The probe departed Earth by following a flight path that continued north over the Pacific Ocean and has already travelled 600 million miles (1 billion kilometers) since launching on Sept. 8, 2016.

OSIRIS-REx flight path over Earth’s surface during the Sept. 22, 2017 slingshot over Antarctica at 12:52 a.m. EDT targeting the probe to Asteroid Bennu in August 2018. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona

The preplanned EGA maneuver provided the absolutely essential gravity assisted speed boost required for OSIRIS-Rex to gain enough velocity to complete its journey to the carbon rich asteroid Bennu and back.

The mission was only made possible by the slingshot which provided a velocity change to the spacecraft of 8,451 miles per hour (3.778 kilometers per second).

“The encounter with Earth is fundamental to our rendezvous with Bennu,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“The total velocity change from Earth’s gravity far exceeds the total fuel load of the OSIRIS-REx propulsion system, so we are really leveraging our Earth flyby to make a massive change to the OSIRIS-REx trajectory, specifically changing the tilt of the orbit to match Bennu.”

The spacecraft conducted a post flyby science campaign by collecting images and science observations of Earth and the Moon that began four hours after closest approach in order to test and calibrate its onboard suite of five science instruments and help prepare them for OSIRIS-REx’s arrival at Bennu in late 2018.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft OTES spectrometer captured these infrared spectral curves during Earth Gravity Assist on Sept. 22 2017, hours after the spacecraft’s closest approach. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Arizona State University

The MapCam camera Blue Marble image is the first one to be released by NASA and the science team.

The image is centered on the Pacific Ocean and shows several familiar landmasses, including Australia in the lower left, and Baja California and the southwestern United States in the upper right.

“The dark vertical streaks at the top of the image are caused by short exposure times (less than three milliseconds),” said the team.

“Short exposure times are required for imaging an object as bright as Earth, but are not anticipated for an object as dark as the asteroid Bennu, which the camera was designed to image.”

The instrument will gather additional data and measurements scanning the Earth and the Moon for three more days over the next two weeks.

“The opportunity to collect science data over the next two weeks provides the OSIRIS-REx mission team with an excellent opportunity to practice for operations at Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

“During the Earth flyby, the science and operations teams are co-located, performing daily activities together as they will during the asteroid encounter.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft originally departed Earth atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket under crystal clear skies on September 8, 2016 at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Everything with the launch and flyby went exactly according to plan for the daring mission boldly seeking to gather rocks and soil from carbon rich Bennu.

OSIRIS-Rex is equipped with an ingenious robotic arm named TAGSAM designed to collect at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample and bring it back to Earth in 2023 for study by scientists using the world’s most advanced research instruments.

View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA mission and launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Ken Kremer

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft OVIRS spectrometer captured this visible and infrared spectral curve, which shows the amount of sunlight reflected from the Earth, after the spacecraft’s Earth Gravity Assist on Sept. 22, 2017. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona