Last week, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft completed its 27-month journey to rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu. The probe is currently orbiting Bennu about 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the surface.
The goal of the mission is to land on the asteroid and return a sample of the asteroid. NASA has never attempted anything like this in the past, and everything appears to be going well with the mission so far.
But what has everyone excited today isn’t the eventual return of a chunk of asteroid – it’s the fact that already, OSIRIS-REx has made a huge discovery about Bennu.
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In a press release, the researchers made the following announcement:
Data obtained from the spacecraft’s two spectrometers, the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), reveal the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as “hydroxyls.” The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, Bennu’s rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.
THEY FOUND EVIDENCE OF WATER ON BENNU!
“The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” said Amy Simon, OVIRS deputy instrument scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system.”
According to Futurism:
Scientists also found boulders on the surface that are up to 50 feet (15 meters) in size.
“They seem to be resting right on the surface like they fell back on, or something weathered around them, and left them exposed,” says Lauretta.
Teams are now starting to examine impact craters for a potential place for OSIRIS-REx to collect a sample in 2020.
“Our initial data show that the team picked the right asteroid as the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission. We have not discovered any insurmountable issues at Bennu so far,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
The probe will touch down on the surface of Bennu in 2020. To prepare for this, researchers will spend all of 2019 gathering information about prospective landing sites, and will also make a decision as to where they will land.
This means that a very detailed survey of Bennu’s surface will be needed to determine a safe touchdown location for OSIRIS-REx and that the craft will have to get much closer to Bennu before the science teams can accurately assess where a sample can be taken from the surface.
After the site is chosen, the teams will run multiple simulations of the touchdown sequence – drawing heavily on NASA’s experience in docking spacecraft together. Bennu’s low mass and weak gravity field make OSIRIS-REx’s landing far more similar to a docking than to the landing of a craft on the surface of the Moon.
What’s crazy to me is that this is just another place that we’ve found evidence of water (either currently existing or in the past). And life as we know it requires the presence of water – which apparently is not necessarily in scarce supply throughout the solar system. After all, we’ve found water on the moon, on Mars, and now an asteroid.
I think it’s only a matter of time until we find life on another celestial body within our solar system – possibly on Europa or Enceladus. It seems that it’s not a matter of if, just a matter of when at this point.