OSIRIS-REx is Heading for Home in May

The OSIRIS-REx team decided to delay the spacecraft’s departure from asteroid Bennu for two months. The departure window opens in March 2021, and the original plan had OSIRIS-REx setting course for Earth on March 3, to bring home the asteroid samples it collected last October.

Now, a revised timeline has the spacecraft leaving Bennu on May 10, 2021. This won’t affect the target delivery data of September of 2023, but it will allow for more observations of the asteroid.

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Asteroid Bennu has little pieces of Vesta on it

The asteroid belt is a chaotic place.  Things smash into each other, get thrown into completely different orbital planes, and are occasionally visited by small electronic spacecraft launched by humans.  All three things seem to have happened to the asteroid Bennu, which is currently being orbited by OSIRIS-REx, a mission launched by NASA in 2016.

The most recently released results from the mission show that Bennu might have small pieces of Vesta on it.  Given that Vesta is one of the biggest asteroid belt objects and Bennu is a near Earth asteroid millions of kilometers away from the asteroid belt, this hints at a pretty exciting past history for the asteroid currently being visited by NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission.

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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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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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Why Are Particles Getting Ejected Off of Asteroid Bennu?

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at asteroid Bennu in December 2018, and just one week later, it discovered something unusual about Bennu: the asteroid was ejecting particles into space.

The spacecraft’s navigation camera first spotted the particles, but scientists initially thought they were just stars in the background. After closer scrutiny, the OSIRIS-REx team realized they were particles of rock, and were concerned that they might pose a hazard.

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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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Asteroid Bennu has Already Thrown Material off into Space 11 Times Since OSIRIS-REx Arrived

On Dec. 31st, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) rendezvoused with the asteroid 101955 Bennu. As part of an asteroid sample-return mission, NASA hopes that material from this near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) will reveal things about the history of the Solar System, the formation of its planets, and the origins of life on Earth.

Since the spacecraft established orbit around the asteroid, it has witnessed some interesting phenomena. This includes the first-ever close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid’s surface. Since that time, the mission team has kept an eye out for these eruptions, which has allowed them to witness a total of 11 “ejection events” since the spacecraft first arrived.

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