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.

July Is the Best Time to See Saturn and Its Rings This Year

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn is the second-biggest planet in our solar system, boasting 95 times the mass of Earth. Even though it's located hundreds of millions of miles away, Saturn is still clearly visible in the night sky during certain times of the year. As EarthSky reports, July is the best month to spot the gas giant, and if you're using a telescope, you may even see its rings and its largest moon.

On July 9, 2019, Saturn entered something called opposition with Earth. This occurs when our planet falls directly in line between Saturn and the Sun. When it's in opposition, Saturn is at its closest point to Earth in its orbit (about 746 million miles away). Due to its position in relation to our planet and the Sun, Saturn also appears especially clear and bright.

Just because opposition has passed doesn't mean your chance to spot Saturn from your backyard is over. The planet may no longer be at peak visibility, but during the weeks and even months surrounding opposition, Saturn will still be close to Earth and easily observable with the naked eye. Without any special tools, Saturn will appear as a bright golden star. If you're using a telescope, look for the planet's iconic rings. Titan, the largest of its 62 moons, may also be visible through a telescope.

To catch a prime view of Saturn, look up on a clear night any time from now through September 2019. At sunset, look above the southeastern sky for white-yellow star. Saturn will appear in the southern part of the sky in the middle of the night and disappear over the northwest horizon at sunrise. Saturn's opposition comes just one month after Jupiter's, which means the solar system's largest planet also looks particularly big and bright this time of year.

[h/t EarthSky]

8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, on July 24, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. In honor of its 50th anniversary, here are some facts about the stellar track.

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

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