NASA’s Mission to Deflect a Potentially Dangerous Asteroid

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NASA is preparing to launch a daring mission that could save Earth from a catastrophic collision with an asteroid. The mission, called OSIRIS-REx, aims to collect and return samples from a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu, which is about the size of the Empire State Building and poses a potential threat to our planet.

What is Bennu and why is it a threat?

Bennu is an ancient asteroid that orbits the Sun every 1.2 years and comes close to Earth every six years. It is one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids, as it has a 1 in 2,700 chance of impacting Earth between now and 2300. If it were to hit Earth, it could create a crater six miles wide and unleash devastation over a 600-mile radius. The impact would release energy equivalent to 22 atomic bombs.

Bennu is also a scientific treasure, as it may contain pristine material from the early solar system. Studying Bennu could help us understand the origins of life on Earth, as well as the resources and risks of near-Earth asteroids.

How will NASA collect samples from Bennu?

NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in 2016 to explore and sample Bennu. The spacecraft arrived at Bennu in December 2018 and began orbiting the asteroid at a distance of about one mile. The spacecraft has been mapping and studying Bennu’s surface, shape, size, mass, composition, and rotation.

NASA’s Mission to Deflect

In October 2020, OSIRIS-REx made history by touching down on Bennu’s surface and collecting about 250 grams of rocky material. This was the first time NASA ever collected samples from an asteroid. The spacecraft used a robotic arm with a sampler head to blast nitrogen gas and stir up dust and pebbles. The sampler head then captured some of the material and stored it in a capsule.

The sample collection was more challenging than expected, as Bennu’s surface turned out to be more rugged and rocky than anticipated. The spacecraft had to navigate through boulders and craters to find a safe spot to touch down. The mission team had to adjust the flight and sampling plans to avoid any hazards.

When will the samples return to Earth?

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to depart from Bennu on September 24, 2023 and begin its journey back to Earth. The spacecraft will release the capsule containing the samples in Earth’s atmosphere on September 24, 2023. The capsule will parachute down to a landing site in Utah, where it will be retrieved by NASA personnel.

The samples will then be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they will be cataloged and analyzed by scientists from around the world. The samples will provide valuable information about Bennu’s structure, chemistry, mineralogy, and history. They will also help us determine how to deflect or divert Bennu if it ever poses a threat to Earth.

What else has OSIRIS-REx discovered about Bennu?

OSIRIS-REx has made several surprising discoveries about Bennu since it arrived at the asteroid. One of the most unexpected findings was that Bennu is active, meaning that it ejects particles from its surface into space. The spacecraft observed several plumes of dust and pebbles erupting from Bennu between January and March 2019. Some of the particles orbited Bennu as satellites before falling back to the surface.

The cause of these plumes is still unknown, but they could be related to thermal stress, impacts by micrometeoroids, or the release of water vapor. The plumes did not pose a risk to the spacecraft, but they added another layer of complexity to the mission. The plumes also revealed that Bennu is not a static object, but a dynamic and evolving one.

Another intriguing discovery was that Bennu has traces of carbon-bearing molecules called organic compounds on its surface. These compounds are the building blocks of life and could indicate that Bennu was once part of a larger body that had liquid water and organic chemistry. The presence of organic compounds also raises the possibility that asteroids like Bennu could have delivered some of the ingredients for life to Earth billions of years ago.

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