Nasa craft shows tiny asteroid studded with boulders
Scientists have released the first data collected since their spacecraft Osiris-Rex hooked up last week with the asteroid Bennu.
Nasa’s first look at a tiny asteroid shows the space rock is more moist and studded with boulders than originally thought.
Scientists released the first morsels of data collected since their spacecraft Osiris-Rex hooked up last week with the asteroid Bennu, which is only about three blocks wide and weighs about 80 million tons.
Bennu regularly crosses Earth’s orbit and will come perilously close in about 150 years.
Data collected by @OSIRISREx's approach to asteroid #Bennu has revealed water locked inside. The mission team aimed three instruments towards Bennu during the approach and began making these first scientific observations. Learn more: https://t.co/LMoKD9KGml #AGU18 pic.twitter.com/xp6P4CveV5— NASA (@NASA) December 10, 2018
There is no liquid water on the asteroid, but there is plenty of it in the form of wet clay.
Project scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona said the blueish space rock is “a little more rugged of an environment than we expected” with hundreds of 10-metre boulders, instead of just one or two.
There’s also a bigger 50-metre boulder which looks like two cones put together with a bulge on its waistline.
“There’s evidence of liquid water in Bennu’s past,” said Nasa scientist Amy Simon. “This is great news. This is a surprise.”
Just what shape is asteroid #Bennu? Now we know, thanks to our @OSIRISREx mission. This new shape model was created from images taken by the spacecraft's PolyCam camera during approach toward Bennu. It shows features as small as six meters: https://t.co/HnK1yoaXN4 #AGU18 pic.twitter.com/XaYuiI0UWY— NASA (@NASA) December 10, 2018
Scientists think Bennu is a leftover from the beginning of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago when planets tried to form and some failed.
Mr Lauretta said it looks like Bennu was once a chunk of a bigger asteroid that probably had water in it.
When Osiris-Rex starts orbiting Bennu in January — no easy feat since its gravity is 100,000 times less than Earth’s — it will be the smallest object that a human-made spacecraft has circled.
Scientists will spend a year scouting the space rock for a good location and then in 2020 it will dive close to the surface and a robotic arm will shoot nitrogen puffs into the soil and collect grains of dirt.
Those asteroid bits will be returned to Earth in 2023.
The 800 million dollar (£636 million) Osiris-Rex mission began with a 2016 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its odometer read 1.2 billion miles last week.
The spacecraft and asteroid names come from Egyptian mythology. Osiris is the god of the afterlife, while Bennu represents the heron and creation.