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

Asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on January 19

The greatest surprise of the mission happened only a few days in and an unexpected observation occurred signaling activity on Bennu, the researchers said.

Some of the dust expelled was blown out into the void of space but the remainder was actually captured within Bennu's orbit, falling back down and resting on the asteroid's surface. This is the first time scientists have had close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid's surface, the agency said. Some have been observed falling back onto the surface, while others drift into interstellar space.

Lauretta stated the plume discovery at Bennu was one of many most massive surprises of his scientific profession. But the rugged terrain means it will instead have to aim for a much smaller safe area, like the smooth patch at top left.

At the moment, the eruptions pose more questions than the OSIRIS-REx team have answers.

The surface of asteroid Ryugu is not what Japanese mission planners anticipated either. Out of 800 million asteroids larger than 1 kilometer, only about a dozen have been found to be active, Campins said. Studying asteroids like Bennu to learn about the origin of the solar system.

The spacecraft also detected numerous larger boulders on the surface, with more than 200 boulders that are over 32 feet in diameter. Although, some remained in orbit of the asteroid.

From Earth-based observations, the team expected a generally smooth surface with a few large boulders. OSIRIS-REx is equipped with a Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM).

"We feel confident that our teams and our systems are up to the task to collecting from a much smaller area", said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager, with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Bits of material were first spotted floating up from Bennu on January 6, shortly after OSIRIS-REx went into an orbit that brought about a mile away from the quarter-mile-wide asteroid.

NASA's plan to scoop up dirt from asteroid hits a snag
NASA says Bennu surprises include particle plumes and rough terrain

Bennu isn't the only asteroid that's been caught blasting material out into space, but it joins a very exclusive club.

Hayabusa2 landed on the asteroid Ryugu last month under similar rocky conditions. Bennu is covered in risky boulders.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has made many other discoveries about Bennu in the three months since the spacecraft arrived at the asteroid, some of which were presented Tuesday at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Conference in Houston and in a special collection of papers issued by the journal Nature.

Numerous particles were ejected clear of the asteroid and sailed out into space, 70 million miles from Earth, but the team tracked some particles that orbited Bennu as tiny satellites before returning to the asteroid's surface. Bennu is just a little bit wider than the height of the Empire State Building, according to NASA.

OSIRIS-Rex, which stands for "Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer", will not land on Bennu, which is essentially a cohesive rubble pile.

The spacecraft launched on September 8, 2016 at 19:05 EST aboard an Atlas V rocket.

The main goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission is to perform a touch-and-go maneuver, collect samples from the surface and put them in a capsule that would be delivered to Earth during a flyby in 2023.

The team plans to make contact with Bennu's surface during summer 2020, after which they hope to return at least 60 grams of surface samples to Earth.

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