OSIRIS-REx Would Have Sunk Deep into Asteroid Bennu if it Tried to Land

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.

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Eight Missions are Getting Extensions, Most Exciting: OSIRIS-REx is Going to Asteroid Apophis

An artist's illustration of NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approaching asteroid Bennu with its sampling instrument extended. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA has granted mission extensions to eight different planetary missions, citing the continued excellent operations of the spacecraft, but more importantly, the sustained scientific productivity of these missions, “and the potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.” Each mission will be extended for three more years.

One of the most exciting extensions gives a new mission to the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, sending it to one of the most infamous asteroids of them all, the potentially hazardous asteroid Apophis.

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Asteroid Ryugu Might Actually Be a Dead Comet

egion of the highest resolution image. Yellow boxes correspond to the region in Figure 1. (Left) The region is shown on the ONC-T global image of Ryugu. (Right) ONC-W1 image, taken at 70 m height. 2018-09-21 13:02(JST). Credit: JAXA

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.

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Look Up and Watch Asteroid 1994 PC1 Fly Past Earth This Week

This week’s apparition of asteroid 1994 PC1 offers observers a chance to see a space rock moving in real time.

In a slow moving universe, asteroids give us a rare chance to see things moving in real time. We have such a chance coming right up on the evening of Tuesday, January 18th, when 1.1-kilometer asteroid (7482) 1994 PC1 passes 1.23 million miles (1.98 million kilometers) from the Earth. This is about five times the distance from the Earth to the Moon, and just a shade over the distance to the anti-sunward Earth-Sun Lagrange 2 point, soon to be the home of the James Webb Space Telescope.

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OSIRIS-Rex got to Know Bennu Really Well. Apparently, There’s now a 1-in-1,750 Chance That it’ll hit Earth by 2300

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 images collected on Dec. 2, 2018, by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft's PolyCam instrument from a range of 15 miles (24 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

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.

OSIRIS-REx discovered particles being ejected from asteroid Bennu shortly after arriving at the asteroid. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

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.”

A diagram showing OSIRIS-REx’s sampling maneuver on October 20th, 2020. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/UA

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.”

Further reading:
Paper published in Icarus
NASA press release

OSIRIS-REx Did One Last Close Flyby of Asteroid Bennu. It’s Almost Time to Come Home

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.

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OSIRIS-REx is Heading for Home in May

This illustration shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft departing asteroid Bennu to begin its two-year journey back to Earth. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

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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OSIRIS-REx Collected So Much Material, the Sample Capsule Overflowed. Time to Bring it All Home.

Captured by the spacecraft’s SamCam camera on Oct. 22, 2020, this series of three images shows that the sampler head on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu. They show also that some of these particles are slowly escaping the sampler head. Analysis by the OSIRIS-REx team suggests that bits of material are passing through small gaps where the head’s mylar flap is slightly wedged open. The mylar flap (the black bulge on the left inside the ring) is designed to keep the collected material locked inside, and these unsealed areas appear to be caused by larger rocks that didn’t fully pass through the flap. Based on available imagery, the team suspects there is plentiful sample inside the head, and is on a path to stow the sample as quickly as possible. Credits: NASA

Is there such as thing as too much asteroid?

Scientists and engineers for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx decided to perform an “early stow” of the sample from Asteroid Bennu collected by the spacecraft on October 20, because the collection container is full-to-overflowing, possibly jamming the collector head from sealing shut.

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