Seeking solar system’s secrets, NASA spacecraft briefly lands on asteroid

OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft

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In News:

  • US space agency NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft momentarily touched the surface of asteroid Bennu, and attempted to collect a handful of material for return to Earth.

News Summary:
  • US space agency NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft momentarily touched the surface of asteroid Bennu, at a spot called Nightingale, inside a crater near Bennu’s north pole.
  • To collect a sample from Bennu, the spacecraft’s robotic arm called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), made a touch-and-go (TAG) attempt, where it briefly touched the asteroid surface.
  • In the coming days, it will be confirmed if it successfully picked up the samples form the asteroid.
  • Before the US, only Japan had collected asteroid samples.

About: Asteroid Bennu and Spacecraft Osiris-REx

About: Asteroids
  • Asteroids, are rocky, airless remnants left over from the early formation of our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago.
  • Most of these asteroids can be found orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter within the main asteroid belt.
  • There are another group of Trojan Asteroids, that share the orbit of planets around the Sun. Most of them are Jupiter Trojans.
Three classes of Asteroids:
  1. The major group of Asteroids are found in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
    • The asteroid belt is estimated to contain somewhere between 1.1-1.9 million asteroids.
  2. The second group is that of Trojans, which are asteroids that share an orbit with a larger planet.
    • NASA reports the presence of Jupiter, Neptune and Mars trojans.
    • In 2011, they reported an Earth trojan as well.
  3. The third classification is Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA), which have orbits that pass close by the Earth.
    • Those that cross the Earth’s orbit are called Earth-crossers.
    • More than 10,000 such asteroids are known, out of which over 1,400 are classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs).
About: Asteroid Bennu
  • It is a carbon-rich asteroid that is almost black in color, and in the Apollo group.
  • The carbon-rich materials are of interest because asteroids like Bennu might have seeded Earth with the building blocks for life.
  • It was discovered in 1999 by a team from the NASA-funded Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research team. 
  • It was named after an Egyptian mythological pheonix bird ‘Bennu’, following NASA’s “Name that Asteroid” competition in 2103.
  • Bennu is categorized as a near-Earth asteroid, and it is a potential Earth impactor – it could collide with our planet someday.
    • Bennu will make a series of very close passes of Earth between 2175 and 2199.
About: Osiris-REx
  • The OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer) spacecraft was launched in 2016.
    • Note: Osiris is also the name of the Egyptian god who was the lord of the underworld but who also represented the seeds of regeneration to new life.
  • It is NASA’s first asteroid sampling mission. It is expected to bring at least a 2.1 ounce (about 60 grams) sample back to Earth for study in 2023.
  • It was sent to travel to a near-Earth asteroid, called Bennu (formerly 1999 RQ36). 
  • The spacecraft contains five instruments meant to explore Bennu including cameras, a spectrometer and a laser altimeter.
  • Launched in September 2016, the spacecraft arrived at Bennu (not landed) in December 2018. Since then, it has been making observations of the asteroid, even reporting that it was shooting debris from its surface into space.
OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft
OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft

How will the sample be useful?

  • Sample from Bennu will help scientists in investigating how planets formed and how life began.
  • It is believed to have formed 4.5 billion years ago, a remnant of the solar system’s building blocks.
  • Many asteroids — including Bennu — cross the orbit of Earth and could collide with our planet someday. A better understanding of them could aid humanity’s ability to divert any asteroid that might be predicted to slam into Earth.

Also Read: Air pollution now biggest health risk in India, says report

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