NASA Selects Site For Sample Collection From Asteroid Bennu (Photo Credit: NASA )
Asteroid 101955 Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid in the Apollo group discovered by the LINEAR Project on 11 September 1999. It has a mean diameter of approximately 492 metres (the size of the Empire State building) and it may collide with our planet in 2135. The gigantic asteroid has an estimated weight of 79 billion kilograms. NASA’s asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at asteroid Bennu last year and since then the US space agency is studying space rock. Earlier this year, NASA had revealed four potential landing sites on the asteroid’s boulder-scattered surface, one of which has now been finalized.
From the four aforementioned landing site candidates named after birds, Sandpiper, Osprey, Kingfisher, and Nightingale, the team of OSIRIS-REx decided that Nightingale crater is the best for the sample return mission.
“After thoroughly evaluating all four candidate sites, we made our final decision based on which site has the greatest amount of fine-grained material and how easily the spacecraft can access that material while keeping the spacecraft safe,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Of the four candidates, site Nightingale best meets these criteria and, ultimately, best ensures mission success,” he added.
In a statement, NASA said, Site Nightingale is located in a northern crater 460 feet (140 meters) wide. Nightingale’s regolith – or rocky surface material – is dark, and images show that the crater is relatively smooth. Because it is located so far north, temperatures in the region are lower than elsewhere on the asteroid and the surface material is well-preserved. The crater also is thought to be relatively young, and the regolith is freshly exposed. This means the site would likely allow for a pristine sample of the asteroid, giving the team insight into Bennu’s history.”
“The mission also selected site Osprey as a backup sample collection site. The spacecraft has the capability to perform multiple sampling attempts, but any significant disturbance to Nightingale’s surface would make it difficult to collect a sample from that area on a later attempt, making a backup site necessary. The spacecraft is designed to autonomously ‘wave-off’ from the site if its predicted position is too close to a hazardous area. During this maneuver, the exhaust plumes from the spacecraft’s thrusters could potentially disturb the surface of the site, due to the asteroid’s microgravity environment. In any situation where a follow-on attempt at Nightingale is not possible, the team will try to collect a sample from site Osprey instead,” NASA added.
“With the selection of final primary and backup sites, the mission team will undertake further reconnaissance flights over Nightingale and Osprey, beginning in January and continuing through the spring. Once these flyovers are complete, the spacecraft will begin rehearsals for its first "touch-and-go" sample collection attempt, which is scheduled for August. The spacecraft will depart Bennu in 2021 and is scheduled to return to Earth in September 2023,” NASA concluded.
"Bennu has challenged OSIRIS-REx with extraordinarily rugged terrain," said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "The team has adapted by employing a more accurate, though more complex, optical navigation technique to be able to get into these small areas. We'll also arm OSIRIS-REx with the capability to recognize if it is on course to touch a hazard within or adjacent to the site and wave-off before that happens," he added.