UPDATE: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, the inaugural mission from the U.S. to retrieve a sample from an asteroid, is set to return to Earth on September 24, 2023, carrying materials from asteroid Bennu. Upon arrival, the spacecraft will dispatch the sample capsule, ensuring a secure landing in the Utah desert. The untouched materials from Bennu – consisting of rocks and dust gathered from the asteroid’s surface in 2020 – will provide future scientists insights into the period approximately 4.5 billion years ago when the Sun and planets were in their formative stages.
NASA is edging closer to the conclusion of its ambitious seven-year mission, aiming to prevent a catastrophic collision of a massive asteroid named Bennu with Earth. Recent findings have indicated that there’s a 1 in 2700 chance of Bennu slamming into Earth on September 24, 2182.
Roughly the size of the iconic Empire State Building, Bennu spans about a third of a mile wide. The potential aftermath of its predicted collision with Earth could equate to the explosive energy of 22 atomic bombs.
The asteroid makes its presence felt by passing Earth approximately every six years. However, scientists anticipate that its most perilous close encounter could be a mere 159 years away.
In a proactive move, NASA dispatched a spacecraft to Bennu in 2016. This mission was crucial for collecting samples and advancing the agency’s strategy to stave off a doomsday-like asteroid deflection scenario.
“It feels very much like the last few miles of a marathon, with a confluence of emotions like pride and joy coexisting with a determined focus to complete the race well,” expressed an impassioned Rich Burns, the project manager for OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
In October 2020, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made history by alighting on Bennu’s surface and procuring a chunk of rocky material. Weighing in at approximately 8.8 ounces (250 grams), this represents not only NASA’s inaugural asteroid sample but also the largest ever extracted from space.
Come this Sunday, September 24 at around 10:42 AM U.S. Eastern Time, the world will watch with bated breath as the OSIRIS-REx mission dispatches this precious sample back to Earth. When the spacecraft is roughly 63,000 miles from Earth, it will jettison the sample-return capsule, roughly the size of a mini-fridge.
Entering Earth’s atmosphere at an intense 28,000 mph, enduring temperatures akin to double that of lava, the capsule’s descent will be tempered using parachutes. This will ensure a controlled landing in the Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah, marking the culmination of the OSIRIS-REx’s monumental seven-year odyssey.
These asteroid fragments are expected to furnish scientists with a rare peek into the planet formation phenomena that created our solar system approximately 4.5 billion years ago.
“Pristine material from asteroid Bennu will help shed light on the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago and perhaps even on how life on Earth began,” elucidated Nicola Fox, an associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Discovered in September 1999 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey, the asteroid initially bore the moniker 1999 RQ36. It wasn’t until 2013 that a nine-year-old from North Carolina christened it Bennu. Following his triumph in the ‘Name that Asteroid!’ competition, he drew inspiration for the name from an ancient Egyptian deity.
As NASA approaches the final leg of this critical mission, the world watches in anticipation, rooting for its success and the vast potential knowledge it promises to unravel about our universe.
As mentioned above, asteroid Bennu stands as one of the most intriguing celestial bodies in our solar system. This near-Earth asteroid, discovered in 1999, presents scientists with both a chance to study the early solar system and an opportunity to better understand potential asteroid threats.
Bennu originated from the primordial debris that helped form our solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. This diamond-shaped rock measures about 500 meters in diameter. This is roughly equivalent to the height of the Empire State Building. Researchers believe that Bennu offers insights into the raw materials present during the solar system’s early days because of its rudimentary nature.
When scientists examine Bennu’s surface, they find a dark and rocky world. The asteroid’s rough landscape consists primarily of boulders and rocks, with very few flat areas. The darkness of Bennu’s surface comes from its carbon-rich composition, indicating that organic molecules, which form the basis for life as we know it, might exist there.
Bennu orbits the Sun on a trajectory that occasionally brings it close to Earth. While currently it poses no direct threat, its orbit intersects with Earth’s, which classifies Bennu as a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA).
As mentioned previously, researchers estimate that there is a 1 in 2,700 chance of Bennu impacting Earth in the late 22nd century. However, scientists constantly monitor its trajectory to ensure we have an accurate understanding of any future threat.
The allure and potential importance of Bennu led NASA to launch the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2016. This spacecraft aimed to approach, study, and collect a sample from Bennu’s surface. The mission achieved multiple milestones. These include the detailed mapping of the asteroid’s surface, gaining insights into its geology, and understanding its rotational dynamics.
In 2020, a significant achievement for the mission occurred when OSIRIS-REx touched Bennu’s surface and successfully collected samples. The spacecraft will return these samples to Earth on September 24, 2023, offering scientists a pristine piece of the early solar system to analyze.
Understanding Bennu serves a dual purpose. On one hand, its study aids our comprehension of the origins of life on Earth. The presence of organic molecules on Bennu could provide clues about the building blocks of life and their distribution throughout the solar system.
On the other hand, understanding the properties and trajectories of near-Earth asteroids like Bennu is crucial for planetary defense. This knowledge enables us to predict and possibly mitigate potential future impacts.
In summary, Bennu represents more than just a floating rock in space. It’s a bridge to our past, a beacon for scientific discovery, and a reminder of the dynamic nature of our solar system. Through the combined efforts of observational astronomy and space missions like OSIRIS-REx, we continue to unveil the secrets Bennu holds.
Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.