tech2 News StaffJan 09, 2019 10:47:54 IST
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft took a picture of Earth just days before zooming in to asteroid Bennu's orbit on New Year’s Eve.
The small asteroid Bennu, which is barely 500 meters wide, looks like a huge, bright blob in the long-exposure photo released by NASA on 19 December.
On the left, and in the far distance (110 million kilometers away), Earth appears as a white dot with the moon even tinier but both clearly visible in the image.
OSIRIS-REx is the first spacecraft to orbit a celestial object so small and from such close proximity — just 1,600 meters from its surface.
Next year, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will try to gather some samples from the asteroid to return to Earth by 2023.
A winning gamble with Bennu
NASA was quite pleased with its choice of rock for the mission, which the agency's first-ever asteroid-sampling project so far.
The discovery indicated that water in its liquid form was abundant in the interior of the celestial body Bennu was once part of. Astronomers studying the space rock think that this parent rock was a 100-kilometre-wide member of the main asteroid belt that falls between Mars and Jupiter.
One of the key objectives from the mission is to give scientists a window into understanding the early evolution of our solar system and what asteroids like Bennu may have contributed to the presence of primitive life or water on Earth.
This made the discovery of water traces a huge deal for the OSIRIS-REx team.
The $800-million-OSIRIS-REx mission launched in 2016, and only began its approach towards the asteroid in August this year. Over the weeks since then, OSIRIS-REx's onboard instruments picked up signatures of hydroxyl groups — molecules that have hydrogen and oxygen in them — which are a key indicator of moisture. Researchers think these hydroxyls are abundant on Bennu, locked in the form of clay minerals, and also a good sign to dig deeper for organic compounds. Organics would be a clear indicator of life anywhere in the solar system.
NASA also released images of the best glimpses OSIRIS-REx has gotten so far of Bennu, which were taken as the spacecraft made its approach to the asteroid's orbit. Looking at the images further revealed that Bennu's surface was rugged and full of boulders. This could complicate the probe's ultimate mission: a sample-grab from Bennu's surface.
The mission's scientists are quite sure they will find a suitable sampling site by July 2020, until which OSIRIS-REx will keep busy collecting data and measurements at a distance from the asteroid.
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