An asteroid that may possibly hold the unique key to life is getting its first guest in billions of years.
Asteroid Bennu, a black circular rock higher than the Empire State Building, is the future target of a NASA spacecraft has taken off. Not just the robotic probe called Osiris-Rex will fly to this antique asteroid, it will lookout it for two years before taking up some gravel and dust, and send the samples back to Earth.
This artist's opinion made available by NASA in July 2016 shows the drawing of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The spacecraft will pass a year surveying Bennu before gathering a sample that will be returned to Earth for examination. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona via AP)
All said, the mission will take seven years, from launch to the sample return. Flying to a new world is not simple stuff. Neither is vacuuming gravel and dust off an asteroid. Dante Lauretta said, "We are going out into the mysterious", principal researcher of the University of Arizona at Tucson. Five tidbits about Bennu, selected for NASA's first such mission from more than 500,000 identified asteroids in our solar system:
- Bennu (BEHN'-oo) was found in 1999 and got its name for this mission 14 years ago. A schoolboy from North Carolina had the winning ticket in an international student naming contest held by the Planetary Society, University of Arizona and others; he named the boxy spacecraft, with its mirrors like solar wings and 10-foot automatic arm, to the heron of Egyptian myths, Bennu. The spacecraft shares that Egyptian motif,holding the mythological god's name Osiris. Osiris-Rex also pairs as a NASA abbreviation.
- The shape of Bennu is like a ball, with a chubby middle. Researchers consider the equatorial girth is free rubble or gravel, the perfect size for gathering a sample. The asteroid revolves every four hours, yes; a day is only of four hours at Bennu. This rotation is slow enough for a spacecraft to reach and take in samples, with nitrogen gas to stir up the surface. Asteroids is smaller than 650 feet in diameter were excluded as candidates; they rotate so fast that their surface solid can be hurled out into space.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, carrying NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, stands at its launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. (NASA/Joel Kowsky via AP)
- Bennu's orbit around the sun is only a slightly larger than Earth's; it rotates the sun around every 14 months and, in point, swings by Earth in every 6 years. That reduces the travel time for Osiris-Rex and, by its closeness to the sun, keeps its solar wings charged. The asteroid's orbit is a little off-kilter to Earth's, yet, which will involve an adjustment to the spacecraft's track. When Osiris-Rex swings by Earth a year after launch for gravity’s assistance, it will finish up in the similar tilted orbital course as Bennu.
- Bennu is possibly dangerous, but no Earth-elder. There is a small chance it could attack the home planet 150 years or so in future, just one-tenth of 1%, according to Lauretta. It would be a foremost natural tragedy, carving out a massive crater, but not a smashing punch for Earth or life as we know it, he worried. This mission should support researcher’s better study the changing paths of asteroids.
- Bennu has the color of coal. That is a symbol the asteroid is rich in carbon dating back to the cause of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. If thus, Bennu is a time tablet that could help describe how life grew on Earth and, probably, elsewhere in the neighborhood. Lauretta said, "We have done the best job we can" to describe the asteroid with telescopes. Once a sample is conveyed back "then we will be capable of answering the question finally", she also said.