Close to-Earth asteroid has a floor like a plastic ball pit

Throughout the historic assortment occasion, the sampling head of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft sank 1.6 ft (0.5 meter) into the floor of the asteroid. Apparently, Bennu’s exterior is manufactured from loosely packed particles that are not sure collectively very securely, primarily based on what occurred because the spacecraft collected a pattern. If the spacecraft hadn’t fired its thruster to again away after its fast assortment of mud and rocks, it may need sunk proper into the asteroid.

“By the point we fired our thrusters to depart the floor we had been nonetheless plunging into the asteroid,” mentioned Ron Ballouz, an OSIRIS-REx scientist primarily based on the Johns Hopkins Utilized Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, in an announcement. Ballouz is a coauthor of a pair of July research launched within the journals Science and Science Advances in regards to the discovery.

Bennu is a rubble-pile asteroid formed like a spinning high, composed of rocks sure collectively by gravity. It is about one-third of a mile (500 meters) extensive.

“If Bennu was fully packed, that will indicate practically strong rock, however we discovered plenty of void house within the floor,” mentioned research coauthor Kevin Walsh, a member of the OSIRIS-REx science crew from Southwest Analysis Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in an announcement.

NASA spacecraft carrying history-making asteroid sample now heading toward Earth

So what may need occurred if the spacecraft’s thrusters did not hearth instantly?

“It might be that OSIRIS-REx would have gone deeper contained in the asteroid, which is each fascinating and scary,” mentioned research coauthor Patrick Michel, an OSIRIS-REx scientist and director of analysis on the Centre Nationwide de la Recherche Scientifique at Côte d’Azur Observatory in Good, France.

Thankfully, the spacecraft and its prized pattern are heading again to Earth. The Bennu pattern is because of land in September 2023.

Bennu defies expectations

When the spacecraft arrived at Bennu in December 2018, the OSIRIS-Rex crew was stunned to search out that the asteroid’s floor was coated with boulders. Earlier observations had ready them for a sandy, beachlike terrain.

The scientists additionally witnessed particles from the asteroid releasing into house.

This image shows asteroid Bennu ejecting rock particles from its surface on January 19, 2019.

“Our expectations in regards to the asteroid’s floor had been fully fallacious,” mentioned research writer Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx on the College of Arizona, Tucson, in an announcement.

The spacecraft captured pictures of the location the place it collected a pattern from Bennu, which additional baffled the crew. Though OSIRIS-REx very gently tapped the asteroid, it kicked up an enormous quantity of rocky particles and left a crater 26 ft (8 meters) extensive.

“What we noticed was an enormous wall of particles radiating out from the pattern website,” mentioned Lauretta, a regents professor of planetary science and Cosmochemistry on the College of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “We had been like, ‘Holy cow!’ Each time we examined the pattern pickup process within the lab, we barely made a divot.”

Earlier than and after photographs of the landing website present the dramatic distinction. The pictures reveal what appears like a despair within the floor, with a number of massive boulders at its base. The sampling occasion itself possible prompted this sunken landform. The darkish floor of the asteroid additionally has extra reflective mud close to the gathering level, displaying the place rocks had been moved through the occasion. These modifications are evident within the slider beneath.

When analyzing the spacecraft’s acceleration information, the crew decided that it encountered little or no resistance, about the identical quantity somebody would possibly really feel pushing the plunger on a French press espresso maker.

This is what an asteroid looks like after playing tag with a spacecraft

Understanding extra about Bennu’s composition can assist scientists finding out different asteroids, whether or not the objective is to plan missions like OSIRIS-REx or shield Earth from potential collisions with house rocks.

An asteroid like Bennu, barely holding itself collectively, may break aside in Earth’s environment, which could pose different dangers even when it is not a direct hit.

“We have to maintain interacting bodily with these our bodies as a result of that is the one option to actually decide their mechanical properties and response to exterior actions,” Michel mentioned. “Photos are essential however don’t give us the reply of whether or not they’re weak or robust.”

Asteroid Bennu now has a greater chance of hitting Earth through 2300, but still slim

OSIRIS-REx — which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Useful resource Identification, Safety-Regolith Explorer — was the primary NASA mission despatched to a near-Earth asteroid, and as soon as there it carried out the closest orbit of a planetary physique by a spacecraft up to now. Bennu is the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft.

The spacecraft’s memento from Bennu is the most important pattern collected by a NASA mission since lunar rocks had been introduced again by Apollo astronauts.

As soon as OSIRIS-REx approaches Earth in 2023, it’ll jettison the capsule containing the pattern, which is able to shoot by means of Earth’s environment and parachute down within the Utah desert.

If OSIRIS-REx remains to be in good well being after it drops off the pattern, it’ll then begin on a brand new expedition to review different asteroids.

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