NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) arrived at Asteroid Bennu on Dec 3, 2018. One year on it is rehearsing for its all-important sampling phase in mid-2020 and calling on citizen volunteers for help in the search for a safe collection site. Boulders present a particular risk.
The craft was launched on Sep 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the sample is due to arrive back on Earth in Sep 2023.
The rehearsal operations include practice at leaving orbit, manoeuvring to a pre-defined checkpoint, then returning to orbit. They also include hovering over the chosen sampling location, once found, before a return to orbit. During each rehearsal, the spacecraft will collect and analyse tracking data, LIDAR ranges, and OCAMS and TAGCAMS imagery so that the team can verify the flight system’s performance before the actual sample collection manoeuvre.
For the safety of the spacecraft, according to NASA, the mission team needs a comprehensive catalog of all the boulders near the potential sample collection sites. The volunteer mappers can report on the asteroid terrain by logging-in to https://bennu.cosmoquest.org.
The sample from Bennu is expected to help explain the formation of the solar system, and the mission might save Earth. According to NASA, there is a high probability that the carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid could slam into Earth late in the 22nd Century.
NBC notes that Bennu may become the asteroid that saves us all. By baking the returned samples and melting them down, scientists will learn what the asteroid is like, how the solar system’s rocky worlds were made and how to protect Earth from the space rocks. The options include pushing them away, breaking them up, or using the Sun’s warmth to nudge them in a different direction.
Date written/update: 2019-11-16