13th October 2020
Stunning video tour of asteroid’s surface revealed by NASA
NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission – OSIRIS-REx – will soon be touching down on the surface of Bennu. As a prelude to this milestone, the space agency has released a stunning video tour of this tiny world, based on data and imagery gathered so far.
Bennu is a C-type (carbonaceous) asteroid in the Apollo class, a group with orbits that occasionally stray into the main asteroid belt, before heading back in towards the Sun and inner Solar System. Discovered in 1999, it is known to have an Earth-crossing path, making it a potentially hazardous object with an estimated 1-in-2,700 chance of hitting our planet between the years 2175 and 2199.
NASA launched the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) in September 2016. The probe arrived in December 2018 and has since obtained thousands of high-resolution images from every possible angle of the 490 m (1,610 ft) diameter rock, in addition to valuable scientific data.
Last week, a special collection of six papers appeared in the journals Science and Science Advances, with scientists on the OSIRIS-REx mission presenting new findings on Bennu’s surface material, geological characteristics, and dynamic history. One of these papers shows that carbon-bearing, organic material is widespread on the asteroid’s surface, including at the mission’s primary sample site – Nightingale – where the spacecraft will make its first sample collection attempt on 20th October, just a week from today. If successful, OSIRIS-REx will depart Bennu in 2021 and bring the sample back to Earth in 2023. The mission team suspects that it will be unlike anything in the meteorite collection on Earth.
Data obtained by the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) – a science instrument contributed by the Canadian Space Agency – has allowed the mission team to develop a 3D digital terrain model of the asteroid that, at 20 cm resolution, is unprecedented in detail and accuracy. The terrain model has been combined with high-resolution imagery to produce the video tour seen here (full screen viewing mode is recommended).
“The abundance of carbon-bearing material is a major scientific triumph for the mission,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator. “We are now optimistic that we will collect and return a sample with organic material – a central goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission.”