A NASA mission's delicate dance to collect samples from a rugged asteroid

NASA           Bennu Landing Site Candidates

NASA Bennu Landing Site Candidates

It was two weeks ago when astronomers captured breathtaking photographs of the asteroid Bennu or 101955 Bennu through the asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

The team has selected four sites to collect samples for the asteroid Bennu, which it has been orbiting for months.

"We knew that Bennu would surprise us, so we came prepared for whatever we might find", said Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission.

Since its arrival in December 2018, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has mapped the entire asteroid in order to identify the safest and most accessible spots for the spacecraft to collect a sample. "The OSIRIS-REx team has demonstrated these essential traits for overcoming the unexpected throughout the Bennu encounter". Like the mythological Bennu bird for which the asteroid is named, all of the candidate sample sites refer to birds that can be found in Egypt.

But the rocky surface of Bennu has made the process more hard. The crater has a diameter of 26 feet (8 m) and is surrounded by boulders, although the site itself is free of large rocks. Osprey is likely to be the location with the most carbon-rich minerals. Hydrated minerals are also present, which indicates that Sandpiper may contain unmodified water-rich material. The selection of these sites was challenging as the rocky terrain of Bennu is a spacecraft damaging threat.

Sandpiper is located in Bennu's southern hemisphere, at 47 degrees south latitude.

Scientists believe that asteroids may have delivered the ingredients for life to the young Earth - and hope to analyse samples from Bennu to prove the theory. This will be followed by a second and third reconnaissance flyby early next year to gather even better images of the surface at these locations.

The OSIRIS-REx sample collection is scheduled for the latter half of 2020, and the spacecraft will return the asteroid samples to Earth on September 24, 2023.

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