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 Snow Moon—the Year’s Brightest Supermoon—Will Be Visible Next Week

iStock.com/jamesvancouver
iStock.com/jamesvancouver

Save the date: The next supermoon is set to light up skies on Tuesday, February 19. Because of when it's arriving, the event will also be a snow moon—a type of full moon that can only been seen this time of year, USA Today reports.

What is a supermoon?

A supermoon occurs when the moon is at its largest in the night sky. That means the Moon is not only full, but also at the point in its orbit that brings it closest to Earth—a position called perigee. On Tuesday, the Moon will appear 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than when it's farthest from our planet, making it the brightest supermoon of 2019.

This next supermoon will also have a fun nickname that fits the season. The full moon of each month has a special name. A harvest moon, the first full moon of September, is the best-known moniker, but there are also strawberry moons (June), sturgeon moons (August), and so on. A snow moon is the name for the full moon in February, alluding to February being the snowiest month of the year in the U.S.

When to watch the next supermoon

If the weather is clear in your area, the best time to see the super snow moon is early Tuesday morning on February 19, when the moon reaches its perigee. The Moon will become officially full six hours later at 10:53 a.m. EST. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights will also offer spectacular views of a seemingly huge, nearly full moon.

Supermoons usually happen just a few times a year, but skygazers won't have to wait long for the next one: There's a super worm moon coming March 21, 2019.

[h/t USA Today]

11 Photos From the Opportunity Rover's Mission on Mars

NASA
NASA

In 2004, the rover Opportunity landed on Mars. Originally intended to serve a mere 90-day mission, the rover instead beamed back scientific discoveries for 15 years. But since a massive dust storm in 2018, the rover Opportunity ceased sending data—and now, NASA has declared its groundbreaking mission complete. (Its twin rover, Spirit, ended its mission in 2011.) Opportunity is the longest-serving robot ever sent to another planet. Let's celebrate Opportunity's Mars mission with a look at the images it captured.

1. Opportunity rover gets its first 360° shot.

Rover Opportunity's 360° photo of Mars
NASA/JPL/Cornell 

This 360° panorama, comprised of 225 frames, shows Mars as it was seen by the Opportunity rover on February 2, 2004. You can see marks made by the rover's airbags, made as Opportunity rolled to a stop. Here's a larger version of the photo.

2. Opportunity rover finds a meteorite.

Opportunity rover's photo of a meteorite on Mars
NASA/JPL/Cornell

This meteorite, found by Opportunity on January 19, 2005, was the first meteorite ever identified on another planet. The rover's spectrometers revealed that the basketball-sized meteorite was composed mostly of iron and nickel.

3. Opportunity rover shoots the Erebus Crater and drifts.

Opportunity rover's photo of Erebus craters and drift
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

On October 5, 2005—four months after Opportunity got stuck in an area NASA nicknamed "Purgatory Dune"—the rover skirted wind-deposited drifts in the center of the Erebus Crater, heading west along the outcrop (the light-toned rock) on the crater's rim, and snapped this photo with its PanCam.

4. Opportunity rover captures Martian rock layers.

Opportunity rover's photo of layers on Mars
NASA/JPL/Cornell

Located on the western ledge of the Erebus Crater, this ledge—called "Payson"—has a diverse range of primary and secondary sedimentary layers formed billions of years ago. According to NASA, "these structures likely result from an interplay between windblown and water-involved processes." Opportunity snapped this photo on April 5, 2006.

5. Opportunity rover comes to Cape Verde.

Opportunity rover's photo of Cape Verde
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

On October 20, 2007, Opportunity celebrated its second Martian birthday (one Martian year = 687 Earth days) by snapping this photo of Cape Verde, a promontory that juts out of the wall of the Victoria Crater. Scattered light from dust on the front sapphire window of the rover's camera created the soft quality of the image and the haze in the right corner.

6. and 7. Opportunity rover is hard at work on Marquette Island.

Opportunity rover's photo of Marquette Island
NASA/JPL-Caltech

This photo shows Opportunity approaching a rock called "Marquette Island" on November 5, 2009. Because its dark color made it stick out, the rover team referred to the rock—which investigations suggested was a stony meterorite—as "Sore Thumb." But it was eventually renamed, according to NASA, using "an informal naming convention of choosing island names for the isolated rocks that the rover is finding as it crosses a relatively barren plain on its long trek from Victoria Crater toward Endeavour Crater."

On November 19, 2009, the rover used its rock abrasion tool to analyze a 2-inch diameter area of Marquette, which scientists called "Peck Bay."

8. Opportunity rover encounters SkyLab Crater.

Opportunity rover's photo of SkyLab Crater
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity snapped a photo of this small crater, informally called Skylab, on May 12, 2011. Scientists estimate that the 30-foot crater was formed within the past 100,000 years. Click the photo for a larger version. You can also see the crater in stereo if you have a pair of anaglyph glasses!

9. Opportunity rover sees its shadow.

Opportunity rover's selfie
NASA/JPL-Caltech

On its 3051st day on Mars (August 23, 2012), Opportunity snapped this photo of its own shadow stretching into the Endeavour Crater.

10. Opportunity rover sees its first dust devil.

Opportunity rover's photo of a dust devil
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Texas A&M

Though its twin rover, Spirit, had seen many dust devils by this point, Opportunity caught sight of one for the first time on July 15, 2010.

11. Opportunity rover snaps a selfie.

Opportunity rover's self-portrait
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University

A girl sure can get dusty traversing the Martian plains! Opportunity snapped the images that comprise this self-portrait with its panoramic camera between January 3 and January 6, 2014, a few days after winds blew off some of the dust on its solar panels. The shadow belongs to the mast—which is not in the photo—that the PanCam is mounted on.

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