NASA launched its first mission to retrieve an uncontaminated sample from the asteroid Bennu and bring it back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas last month on September 9.
The purpose of the study and sample of Bennu multifaceted. The mission objectives, as outlined by NASA, will be to analyze a sample from the surface of Bennu, to map the asteroid, document the site of the sample, compare observations made near the asteroid to that of ground-based observations, and study the Yarkovsky effect (the effect of non-gravitational forces, such as the sun’s heat, on orbital paths of objects in space).
Studying the sample will allow scientists to further refine theories about Earth’s origins, and may lead to insights on how to prevent possible future asteroid collisions with Earth.
Bennu was selected as the subject asteroid due to its proximity to Earth and the possibility of a future collision with Earth sometime in the late twenty-second century, but also because of its composition. Bennu is a B-type asteroid that is expected to contain organic compounds and water-bearing minerals that could link back to the origin of life and Earth’s oceans.
Scientists cannot predict with certainty whether or not Bennu will actually collide with Earth in the distant future, but they say it is unlikely. However, the sample collected from Bennu and the discoveries resulting from its study will support the main objective of the mission – to better understand the origins and formations of the planets in our solar system.
The mission is expected to conclude in September of 2023, when the ORISIS-REx (The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) spacecraft returns to Earth with the sample from Bennu and any the other information collected during the process. Due to the extreme speeds of Bennu’s flight, approximated at 63,000 mph, the ORISIS-REx will only be able to make contact with the asteroid for five seconds. Two years of this mission will be spent studying Bennu to ensure that those five seconds are enough time to collect as much data as possible.