Next year, NASA plans to shovel up a small batch of dirt from an asteroid named Bennu, spotted millions of miles from the Earth. Now, the agency has identified which part of the space rock it’s going to steal from. Today, the space agency declared that one of its spacecraft will try to grab some particles from a 20-meter-wide crater on the asteroid, called Nightingale.
Engineers selected the Nightingale site from four shortlisted spots on Bennu. According to the agency could be the best place to find organic material and water on the asteroid that may hail from the earliest days of the Solar System. “This one really came out on top, because of the scientific value,” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the asteroid sampling mission, stated during a press conference declaring the selection. However, targeting that part of the crater is risky. The area is covered by a large wall of rocks, which could make the process of sample collection a tough job. But ultimately, Lauretta said the area could possess the things they’re looking for.
Scientists are ‘crossing their fingers’ to get a sample that will provide the best snapshot of what the baby version of our Solar System was like billions of years ago. Asteroids are thought to be rocky fragments of the early Solar System. They are considered to stay (relatively) the same over time and still containing materials that were there during the birth of the planets. Studying an asteroid’s belongings could help us unmask some of the secrets of how our beautiful cosmic neighborhood came to be.
“OSIRIS-REx on Duty”
The assignment of grabbing and delivering these asteroid particles to our planet is given to the ‘OSIRIS-REx’ spacecraft. The vehicle has been swirling around Bennu for the past year, after traveling for two years through the space to reach the asteroid. Bennu’s surface has been mapped during this hang out time, using spacecraft’s various instruments. Detailed understanding of what the rock’s terrain is like was provided by the mapping process. That way, the engineering team behind OSIRIS-REx could pick the best site for the vehicle to sample.
NASA engineers have figured out that Bennu is not a particularly amenable space rock. Almost immediately after OSIRIS-REx got to Bennu, they realized that the asteroid was incredibly rugged and rocky. It’s quite different from their expectations; based on their observations of the object from the Earth, scientists thought that Bennu would contain patches of smooth, sandy grains with very few boulders. However, as it turns out, there are hundreds of large boulders lurking on the asteroid, and almost no smooth areas.
They Have only ‘One Shot’
The OSIRIS-REx team only gets one shot at sampling Bennu and hence, targeting this site was an incredibly crucial part of the mission. After mapping the surface, engineers polished the images and applied algorithms and software to find flat parts of Bennu. NASA even reached out to the public to help find possible targets. After identifying 50 potential sites, the OSIRIS-REx team eventually whittled it down to four, and finally chose the Nightingale crater.
Currently, NASA is hoping to grab at least 60 grams of sample from Nightingale in the summer of 2020. Once a sample is obtained, OSIRIS-REx will return home in 2021 and attempt to land in the Utah desert in 2023. If the sample does contain water and organic material, like the team hopes, it could strengthen the idea that asteroids like Bennu may have deposited these materials to Earth when it was freshly formed. This could be a substantial piece of evidence of how life emerged on our planet.
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