NASA scientists have made what they say is an “amazing” discovery about Bennu, the asteroid from which its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected a rock and dust sample in 2020.
The Space Agency said This week, the particles that make up Bennu’s exterior turned out to be much more loosely bound than expected. In fact, there would be little resistance when entering, “like stepping into a pit of plastic balls, which are popular playgrounds for children.”
NASA announced the discovery this week after analyzing data collected during the spacecraft’s brief landing on the asteroid two years ago.
As the video below shows, the spacecraft landed on the asteroid before setting off an explosion to collect material. Nine seconds after making contact, the spacecraft fired its thrusters to push it away from the rock below, but NASA said if it hadn’t, it would have “sunk into Bennu.”
Scientists first understood that Bennu may have a loosely bound surface when they noticed how the spacecraft’s relatively gentle touchdown resulted in a large amount of debris flying up. “More bizarrely, the spacecraft left a large crater that was 8 meters wide,” NASA said.
The surprising results were published in the journals Science and Science Advances on July 7.
“These results add to the intrigue that has kept scientists on edge throughout the OSIRIS-REx mission, as Bennu has proven unpredictable throughout,” NASA said.
In fact, as the space agency notes, Bennu offered its first surprise when OSIRIS-REx reached the asteroid in 2018, which the mission team found was “littered with boulders.”
To determine the density of the asteroid’s surface, the scientists analyzed acceleration data and images of the spacecraft taken during touchdown, then ran hundreds of computer simulations until all the data matched.
NASA said the data could help it make more accurate long-distance observations of distant asteroids, which could allow it to make better predictions if any are found to be heading our way.
For example, the scientists believe that Bennu, which they said is “hardly held together by gravity or electrostatic force,” could break up in Earth’s atmosphere and therefore pose a different type of hazard than solid asteroids.
“I think we’re just beginning to understand these bodies because they behave in very counterintuitive ways,” said OSIRIS-REx scientist Patrick Michel.
OSIRIS-REx is on its way back to Earth and is scheduled to deliver the Bennu asteroid sample in September 2023.
Scientists believe that Bennu formed in the first 10 million years of our solar system’s existence. The sample could therefore reveal more about how it formed and potentially unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the origins of life.
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