Scientists were already excited to have a chance to study the asteroid Bennu up close with the OSIRIS-REx probe, but the stakes just got higher. In one of its first observations of the object after settling into orbit, the spacecraft has detected evidence of water in the asteroid’s structure. The samples OSIRIS-REx (hopefully) return to Earth could be very interesting.
NASA launched OSIRIS-REx about two years ago with a mission to meet up with the asteroid Bennu, which it did earlier this month. The probe is currently conducting surface scans to map the asteroid, and NASA reports that the original estimates of Bennu’s size, orbit, and rotation were dead-on. The one unexpected divergence is the large boulder near Bennu’s south pole. Ground observations suggested it was no more than 33 feet (10 meters) tall, but OSIRIS-REx confirms it’s 164 feet (50 meters) in height.
OSIRIS-REx carries a pair of spectrometers, which can characterize molecules present on the asteroid. Using the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), NASA discovered evidence of liquid water in the asteroid’s past. Specifically, the scans picked up molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms known as hydroxyls. The team currently believes these molecules are spread across Bennu in water-bearing clay minerals.
This doesn’t mean you should plan for Bennu as your next beach vacation. Not only is it far too cold for swimming, but there’s also no evidence of liquid water right now. That’s not surprising because it’s too small to hold onto liquids of any sort. The most likely explanation is that the clump of primordial material we currently know as Bennu previously interacted with water. That may have been when it was part of a much larger object that could host liquid.
Scientists are naturally very anxious to get a closer look at Bennu, and they might have a chance to get very up-close and personal. OSIRIS-REx will settle into a tight orbit around Bennu on Dec. 31. Eventually, the probe will be passing just 0.87 miles (1.4 kilometers) above the surface of Bennu. In about 18 months, OSIRIS-REx will undertake its most crucial task by approaching the surface to take a sample. The spacecraft will use a 10-foot robot arm with a small scoop to grab material from the surface with the aim of returning it to Earth. It could collect as much as 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of material from Bennu. If all goes as planned, scientists on Earth could have the sample as soon as September 2023.
Now read: Japan’s Hayabusa 2 Spacecraft Reaches Asteroid, Prepares to Collect Sample, NASA Designs HAMMER Spacecraft to Deflect or Nuke Dangerous Asteroids, and Scientists Propose Studying Hundreds of Asteroids with Nanoprobe Fleet
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