NASA's plan to scoop up dirt from asteroid hits a snag

This view of asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on Jan. 19 2019 was created by combining two images taken on board NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Image Credit NASA  Goddard  University of Arizona  Lockheed Martin

Just a few days later on January 6, NASA detected the first hints of particle expulsion from the surface of Bennu (see above). Bennu is covered in unsafe boulders.

USA space agency NASA has announced an unanticipated discovery - "particle plumes erupting" from Bennu's surface. The ejections seem to happen in sudden bursts, from specific locations on Bennu's surface, but researchers still aren't sure what causes them.

Bennu is the target of NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, which began orbiting the asteroid on December 31 a year ago. "And our exciting journey there is just getting started".

Bennu is a diamond-shaped asteroid that is about 500 metres wide and may offer answers to long-standing mysteries about the origins of our solar system and the sources of water and organic molecules on Earth. Like the Japanese Hayabusa 2 mission, NASA has found that Bennu's surface is covered in craggy boulders, making the Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection more challenging.

Bennu is the target of NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, which began orbiting the asteroid on December 31. He spoke today at a press conference at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, to accompany his team's publication of multiple Nature papers on OSIRIS-REx's mission so far.

This image shows a view across asteroid Bennu’s southern hemisphere and into space. It demonstrates the number and distribution of boulders across Bennu’s surface
Spacecraft makes 'unexpected' discoveries about asteroid Bennu

NASA has concluded the particle clouds don't pose a danger to the spacecraft, giving OSIRIS-REx the all-clear to move in and investigate.

Based on terrestrial observations, NASA's OSIRIS-REx team expected to find a relatively smooth orb, with maybe a few large boulders. Instead, it discovered Bennu's entire surface is rough and dense with boulders. The space rock has much more - and quite larger - boulders than NASA had expected, forcing the team to adjust its planned sample collection mission.

Due to the unexpectedly rough terrain, NASA said the mission team has been unable to find a site that large on Bennu and is now identifying possible locations much smaller in radius.

Professor Ireland said the smaller sample site and high number of boulders will mean the spacecraft will have much less margin for error during its descent to the surface than originally planned. And scientists have already been confounded by Bennu, mere months after NASA arrived at the asteroid.

"Throughout OSIRIS-REx's operations near Bennu, our spacecraft and operations team have demonstrated that we can achieve system performance that beats design requirements", said Rich Burns, the project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise.While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration.

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