5 Goals of the OSIRIS-REx Mission to the Asteroid 'Bennu'

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

After almost two years in space, NASA's groundbreaking spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is now on its final approach to its target—the asteroid Bennu, a mountain-sized, near-Earth object that scientists believe holds the secrets to the origins of the solar system.

When it reaches Bennu on December 3, 2018, it will match the asteroid's speed as it orbits the Sun (63,000 mph), and fly in formation with it for the next couple of years as it maps and surveys the surface. Then, on July 4, 2020, OSIRIS-REx will reach out to Bennu with a robotic arm, scoop up a sample from the surface, and store it in a capsule. The next year, the craft begins heading back to Earth, where in 2023 it will eject the sample-containing capsule over the Utah desert for retrieval.

It's the first time in history this kind of sample retrieval has ever been attempted, and scientists are pretty excited about it. The mission objectives of OSIRIS-REx are embedded in its name: the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer. The craft has five scientific instruments tasked with carrying out these objectives. Let's break it all down.

1. ORIGINS: BRINGING A TIME CAPSULE FROM THE BIRTH OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM BACK TO EARTH

"This is really what drives our program," Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the mission, said in 2016, shortly before the spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral. "We're going to asteroid Bennu because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation, back when our planetary system was spread across as dust grains in a swirling cloud around our growing proto-star." Bodies accumulated in the cloud, many getting water ice and organic material—key compounds that led to the habitability of Earth and the origin of life. Bennu is one such body. By taking a hopefully carbon-rich sample of the asteroid and bringing it home, planetary scientists will be able to study in a laboratory setting a pristine cache of the building blocks of Earth.

Lauretta described sample return as being the forefront of planetary exploration. If Bennu is a time traveler from the distant past, sample return is time travel to the distant future: As new laboratory techniques and technologies are developed, scientists in coming years can use them to analyze the samples with far more sophistication than we're capable of today. To appreciate how massive an advance might be in store, consider that 50 years ago, computers were only just being introduced to the field of geology here on Earth. Now we can study the composition of many bodies in the solar system.

2. SPECTRAL INTERPRETATION: ANALYZING BENNU'S COMPOSITION

Since Bennu's discovery in 1999, scientists have used the best telescopes on Earth and in space to study the asteroid. As such, they have an extraordinary data set from which to work, and believe they have a pretty good handle on the asteroid's composition. The spacecraft, up close and personal with the asteroid, will use its spectrometers and cameras to provide "ground truth" to the distant observations of telescopes. Scientists will be able to see how well their predictions matched reality. What they got correct will have confirmation; what they got wrong can be used to refine their models. All of this can then be applied to thousands of other objects in the solar system.

3. RESOURCE IDENTIFICATION: EYEING FUTURE MINING OPERATIONS

Lauretta told Mental Floss that when OSIRIS-REx was first conceived, resource identification was "cool science fiction." The idea of going to asteroids and mining them for material was the sort of thing people in some Jetsons-like future would be able to do, but not us. Today, however, companies are lining up for the chance to begin celestial mining operations. OSIRIS-REx will pioneer the technologies and capabilities necessary to provide detailed global analysis of an asteroid's surface. They will be able to focus on composition and mineralogy with an eye toward identifying regions of interest. It will be, in other words, creating the sorts of prospecting maps once seen in the Old West—only this time for an off-world ore-rush.

4. SECURITY: STUDYING BENNU'S TRAJECTORY TO AVOID POTENTIAL ASTEROID COLLISIONS

Earth's orbit around the Sun is startlingly perilous. Bennu is only one of several near-Earth objects that have a small-but-not-impossible chance of colliding with this planet in the 22nd century. (The odds are 1 in 2700, which is about the same as your odds of dying by exposure to smoke or fire. That's a pretty terrifying figure when you consider the destruction and damage that such an asteroid impact might cause, and that people die in house fires all the time.)

Scientists will use the data returned from OSIRIS-REx to study something called the Yarkovsky Effect. As asteroids go about their orbit, they absorb energy from the Sun and emit that energy as heat. That emission essentially acts as a small, natural asteroid thruster, and changes an asteroid's trajectory over time. In a 12-year period, the Yarkovsky Effect changed Bennu's position by more than 115 miles. If researchers can better understand the causes and effects of the phenomenon, they can apply that knowledge not only to Bennu but also to thousands of objects throughout the solar system. If some object is headed our way, we can know about it sooner—and perhaps find a way to stop it.

5. REGOLITH EXPLORER: UNDERSTANDING HOW SURFACE PARTICLES BEHAVE IN MICROGRAVITY

Regolith is the blanket of dust and gravel on the surface of many celestial bodies. Scientists don't quite understand random mechanics in a microgravity environment. Even if Bennu's sample collection arm is unsuccessful—it can make three attempts—Lauretta said the effort alone pushes the boundaries of research: "By the act of putting our device on the surface of the asteroid to collect the sample, in and of itself we are performing a fantastic science experiment."

Editor's note: This story originally ran in 2016 and was updated in August 2018.

A Super Pink Moon—the Biggest Supermoon of 2020—Is Coming In April

April's super pink moon will be extra big and bright (but still white).
April's super pink moon will be extra big and bright (but still white).
jakkapan21/iStock via Getty Images

The sky has already given us several spectacular reasons to look up this year. In addition to a few beautiful full moons, we’ve also gotten opportunities to see the moon share a “kiss” with Venus and even make Mars briefly disappear.

In early April, avid sky-gazers are in for another treat—a super pink moon, the biggest supermoon of 2020. This full moon is considered a supermoon because it coincides with the moon’s perigee, or the point in the moon’s monthly orbit when it’s closest to Earth. According to EarthSky, the lunar perigee occurs on April 7 at 2:08 p.m. EST, and the peak of the full moon follows just hours later, at 10:35 p.m. EST.

How a supermoon is different.

Since the super pink moon will be closer to Earth than any other full moon this year, it will be 2020’s biggest and brightest. It’s also the second of three consecutive supermoons, sandwiched between March’s worm moon and May’s flower moon. Because supermoons only appear about 7 percent bigger and 15 percent brighter than regular full moons, you might not notice a huge difference—but even the most ordinary full moon is pretty breathtaking, so the super pink moon is worth an upward glance when night falls on April 7.

The meaning of pink moon.

Despite its name, the super pink moon will still shine with a normal golden-white glow. As The Old Farmer’s Almanac explains, April’s full moon derives its misleading moniker from an eastern North American wildflower called Phlox subulata, or moss pink, that usually blooms in early April. It’s also called the paschal moon, since its timing helps the Catholic Church set the date for Easter (the word paschal means “of or relating to Easter”).

[h/t EarthSky]

Are Any of the Scientific Instruments Left on the Moon By the Apollo Astronauts Still Functional?

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first footprint on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first footprint on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images

C Stuart Hardwick:

The retroreflectors left as part of the Apollo Lunar Ranging Experiment are still fully functional, though their reflective efficiency has diminished over the years.

This deterioration is actually now delivering valuable data. The deterioration has multiple causes including micrometeorite impacts and dust deposition on the reflector surface, and chemical degradation of the mirror surface on the underside—among other things.

As technology has advanced, ground station sensitivity has been repeatedly upgraded faster than the reflectors have deteriorated. As a result, measurements have gotten better, not worse, and measurements of the degradation itself have, among other things, lent support to the idea that static electric charge gives the moon an ephemeral periodic near-surface pseudo-atmosphere of electrically levitating dust.

No other Apollo experiments on the moon remain functional. All the missions except the first included experiment packages powered by radiothermoelectric generators (RTGs), which operated until they were ordered to shut down on September 30, 1977. This was done to save money, but also because by then the RTGs could no longer power the transmitters or any instruments, and the control room used to maintain contact was needed for other purposes.

Because of fears that some problem might force Apollo 11 to abort back to orbit soon after landing, Apollo 11 deployed a simplified experiment package including a solar-powered seismometer which failed after 21 days.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER