The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft conducted a two-year reconnaissance and sample collection at the asteroid Bennu, providing crucial data about the 500-meter-wide potentially hazardous rubble pile/space rock. When OSIRIS-REx arrived on Dec. 3, 2018, it needed some tricky navigation and precise maneuvers to make the mission work.
Experts at NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio created an amazing visualization of the path the spacecraft took during its investigations. A short film called “A Web Around Asteroid Bennu” highlights the complexity of the mission, and the film is being shown at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, a festival honoring standout works of computer animated storytelling.
A pair of studies published in Science and Science Advances have helped identify that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) spacecraft would have sunk into the asteroid Bennu had the spacecraft not fired its thrusters immediately after collecting samples from the surface of the small planetary body in October 2020. The respective studies examined the loosely packed exterior of Bennu, comparing its surface to stepping into a pit of plastic balls that people of all ages enjoy. The paper in Science was led by Dr. David Lauretta, Principal Investigator of OSIRIS-REx and a Regents Professor at the University of Arizona, and the paper in Science Advances was led by Dr. David Walsh, a member of the OSIRIS-REx team from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
In 2014, the Japanese Space Agency JAXA launched the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft to visit asteroid Ryugu. It arrived at the asteroid in June 2018 and studied it from orbit for over a year. Hayabusa 2 even dispatched four rovers to the asteroid’s surface. After departing, it flew past Earth in December 2020, dropping off a sample of Ryugu.
Of all the scientific results from that impressive mission, the most interesting one might be this: Asteroid Ryugu might not be an asteroid. It might be the remnant of a comet.
Asteroid Bennu is one of the two most hazardous known asteroids in our Solar System. Luckily, the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) spacecraft orbited Bennu for more than two years and gathered data that has allowed scientists to better understand the asteroid’s future orbit, trajectory and Earth-impact probability, and even rule out some future impact possibilities.
In the most precise calculations of an asteroid’s trajectory ever made, researchers determined Bennu’s total impact probability through the year 2300 is really small — about 1 in 1,750 (or 0.057%). The team’s paper says the asteroid will make a close approach to Earth in 2135, where Bennu will pose no danger at that time. But Earth’s gravity will alter the asteroid’s path, and the team identifies Sept. 24, 2182 as the most significant single date in terms of a potential impact, with an impact probability of 1 in 2,700 (or about 0.037%).
“The impact probability went up just a little bit, but it’s not a significant change,” said Davide Farnocchia, lead author of the paper, and scientist at the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, speaking at a press briefing this week. Farnocchia added that means there is a 99.94% probability that Bennu is not on an impact trajectory.
“So, there is no particular reason for concern,” he said. “We have time to keep tracking the asteroid and eventually come to a final answer.”
101955 Bennu was discovered in 1999 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research Team. Since its discovery, Bennu has been extensively tracked with 580 ground-based optical astrometric observations. The asteroid made three relatively close passes of Earth in 1999, 2005, and 2011, during which the Arecibo and Goldstone radar stations collected a wealth of data about Bennu’s motion.
But OSIRIS-REx’s two-year reconnaissance and sample collection has provided crucial data about the 500-meter-wide asteroid, including some surprises. Scientists expected Bennu’s surface to be smooth and sandy, but the first images from OSIRIS-REx revealed a rugged boulder-field, littered with large rocks and loose gravel. The team also expected the asteroid to be geologically quiet, but just six days after arriving in orbit, the spacecraft observed the asteroid ejecting bits of rock, due to rocks on the asteroid cracking because of the day-night heat cycle. We also learned that Bennu has pieces of Vesta on it. The spacecraft also scooped up a sample of rock and dust from the asteroid’s surface in October of 2020, which it will deliver to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023, for further scientific investigation.
But OSIRIS-REx’s precise observations of Bennu’s motions and trajectory allowed for the best estimate yet of the asteroid’s future path.
“The OSIRIS-REx mission has provided exquisitely precise data on Bennu’s position and motion through space to a level never captured before on any asteroid,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA.
The researchers took into account all kinds of small influences, including the tiny gravitational pull of more than 300 other asteroids, and the drag caused by interplanetary dust. They even checked to see if OSIRIS-REx pushed the asteroid off course when the spacecraft briefly touched its rocky surface with its Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection maneuver. But that event had a negligible effect, as expected.
The researchers especially focused on a phenomenon called the Yarkovsky effect, where an object in space would, over long periods of time, be noticeably nudged in its orbit by the slight push created when it absorbs sunlight and then re-emits that energy as heat. Over short timeframes, this thrust is minuscule, but over long periods, the effect on the asteroid’s position builds up and can play a significant role in changing an asteroid’s path.
“The Yarkovsky effect will act on all asteroids of all sizes, and while it has been measured for a small fraction of the asteroid population from afar, OSIRIS-REx gave us the first opportunity to measure it in detail as Bennu travelled around the Sun,” said Steve Chesley, senior research scientist at JPL and study co-investigator, in a press release. “The effect on Bennu is equivalent to the weight of three grapes constantly acting on the asteroid – tiny, yes, but significant when determining Bennu’s future impact chances over the decades and centuries to come.”
They also were able to better determine how the asteroid’s orbit will evolve over time and whether it will pass through a “gravitational keyhole” during its 2135 close approach with Earth. These keyholes are areas in space that would set Bennu on a path toward a future impact with Earth if the asteroid were to pass through them at certain times, due to the effect of Earth’s gravitational pull.
The team wrote in their paper that “compared to the information available before the OSIRIS-REx mission, the knowledge of the circumstances of the scattering Earth encounter that will occur in 2135 improves by a factor of 20, thus allowing us to rule out many previously possible impact trajectories.”
“The orbital data from this mission helped us better appreciate Bennu’s impact chances over the next couple of centuries and our overall understanding of potentially hazardous asteroids – an incredible result,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and professor at the University of Arizona. “The spacecraft is now returning home, carrying a precious sample from this fascinating ancient object that will help us better understand not only the history of the solar system but also the role of sunlight in altering Bennu’s orbit since we will measure the asteroid’s thermal properties at unprecedented scales in laboratories on Earth.”
After more than two years in orbit around asteroid Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is ready to come home. It’s bringing with it a pristine sample of space rocks that geologists here on Earth are eager to study up close. The sample will arrive in September 2023, but we won’t have to wait nearly that long for new data from OSIRIS-REx. Last week, the probe carried out one final flyby of Bennu, in an effort to photograph the sample collection site. The photographs are being downlinked now, and should be here by midweek.
If you’ve been following the OSIRIS-REx mission, you probably already know why scientists are keen to see these photographs, but if you haven’t, hold on to your hats – it’s a wild story.
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.
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.
As soon as the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at asteroid Bennu in December 2018, there was a big surprise. Scientists expected Bennu’s surface would consist of fine-grained material like a sandy beach. But take a look at that surface: Bennu is a jumbled mess.
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.
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.