Our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will travel to a near-Earth asteroid, called Bennu, where it will collect a sample to bring back to Earth for study.
But why was Bennu chosen as the target destination asteroid for OSIRIS-REx? The science team took into account three criteria: accessibility, size and composition.
Accessibility: We need an asteroid that we can easily travel to, retrieve a sample from and return to Earth, all within a few years time. The closest asteroids are called near-Earth objects and they travel within 1.3 Astronomical Units (AU) of the sun. For those of you who don’t think in astronomical units…one Astronomical Unit is approximately equal to the distance between the sun and the Earth: ~93 million miles.
For a mission like OSIRIS-REx, the most accessible asteroids are somewhere between 0.08 – 1.6 AU. But we also needed to make sure that those asteroids have a similar orbit to Earth. Bennu fit this criteria! Check!
Size: We need an asteroid the right size to perform two critical portions of the mission: operations close to the asteroid and the actual sample collection from the surface of the asteroid. Bennu is roughly spherical and has a rotation period of 4.3 hours, which is in our size criteria. Check!
Composition: Asteroids are categorized by their spectral properties. In the visible and infrared light minerals have unique signatures or colors, much like fingerprints. Scientists use these fingerprints to identify molecules, like organics. For primitive, carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu, materials are preserved from over 4.5 billion years ago! We’re talking about the start of the formation of our solar system here! These primitive materials could contain organic molecules that may be the precursors to life here on Earth, or elsewhere in our solar system.
Thanks to telescopic observations in the visible and the infrared, as well as in radar, Bennu is currently the best understood asteroid not yet visited by a spacecraft.
All of these things make Bennu a fascinating and accessible asteroid for the OSIRIS-REx mission.
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8 Sep, 2016
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