NASA baffled by mysterious, unexplained ejections on asteroid Bennu

OSIRIS-REx pulled within 12 miles of the diamond-shaped space rock Monday December 3

Japan's space agency said Monday that its Hayabusa2 spacecraft will follow up that up with another risky mission - dropping an explosive on the asteroid to make a crater and then collect underground samples for possible clues to the origin of the solar system. This touch and go maneuver will collect a sample of the asteroid regolith and return it to Earth for analysis.

"The first three months of OSIRIS-REx's up-close investigation of Bennu have reminded us what discovery is all about-surprises, quick thinking, and flexibility", Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. This could change the way we understand asteroids like Bennu. It is the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft, and it could contain materials from the beginning of the solar system.

The team also says they found more boulders at the surface than expected.

Bennu is a diamond-shaped asteroid that is about 500 metres wide and may offer answers to long-standing mysteries about the origins of our solar system and the sources of water and organic molecules on Earth.

The mission was aiming just to get on the dart board, Burns said, but now with such hard landing circumstances, "We're going to try to hit the bullseye".

An artist's concept of what the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will look like as it orbits asteroid Bennu

But there is optimism the new discoveries will not disrupt the mission to bring particles from Bennu back to earth.

Professor Trevor Ireland, from ANU, will analyse samples of the asteroid once they are returned to Earth in 2023. It is due to collect a rock sample using its extendable arm but the sampling is proving more hard than anticipated due to the amount of larger boulders on the surface. Observations from orbit showed that Bennu's entire surface is rough and covered with boulders.

Ideally, the mission team wants a sample site clear of hazards that is over 150 feet in diameter. At that point, the team increased the frequency of observations, finding the dust ejection was not a one-time event - Bennu does this continuously.

"Bennu has issued us a challenge to deal with its rugged terrain, and we are confident that OSIRIS-REx is up to the task", project manager Rich Burns boasted. The mission team is developing an updated approach, called Bullseye TAG, to accurately target smaller sample sites. Originally, both assumed they could have spacious landing zones. Now that OSIRIS-REx has revealed Bennu's surface up close, those expectations of a smoother surface have been proven wrong. The team is revising these models with the data from Bennu. Among the unexpected discoveries were particle plumes, and OSIRIS-REx now has the distinction of having made the first close-up observations of these plumes erupting from the surface of an asteroid. The spacecraft began orbiting Bennu at the end of last year, after spending two years chasing down the space rock.

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