NASA’s first asteroid-sampling mission OSIRIS-REx has observed particle plumes erupting from the surface of Bennu, an asteroid the size of the pyramid at Giza.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft, which began orbiting Bennu on December 31, first discovered the particle plumes on January 6, followed by additional particle plumes over the last two months.
While some of the particles were slow-moving, the others were found orbiting Bennu, like small satellites.
Bennu’s entire surface was also found to be rough and dense with boulders, contrary to the Earth-based observations, which showed a smooth surface with a few large boulders.
This means that the sample collection part of the mission will have to be adjusted to make sure that OSIRIS-REx can touch down and collect a sample, said NASA while presenting the discoveries at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Conference in Houston.
“The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
“And the rugged terrain went against all of our predictions. Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started,” Lauretta added.
Further, the team observed a change in the spin rate of Bennu as a result of what is known as the Yarkovsky-O’Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack (YORP) effect.
The uneven heating and cooling of Bennu as it rotates in sunlight is causing the asteroid to increase its rotation speed.
As a result, Bennu’s rotation period is decreasing by about a second every 100 years, the scientists explained.
OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 to explore Bennu, the smallest body ever orbited by spacecraft, is expected to return a sample of the asteroid to Earth in 2023.
The findings will allow researchers to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the sources of water and organic molecules on Earth, the resources in near-Earth space, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.