The asteroid, which is being studied by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, shows some surprising activity on its surface, and scientists are beginning to understand what might be causing it.
When NASA’s OSIRIS-REx
spacecraft arrived at asteroid (101955) Bennu, mission scientists knew that
their spacecraft was orbiting something special. Not only was the boulder-strewn
asteroid shaped like a rough diamond, its surface was crackling with activity, shedding
small pieces of rock into space. Now, after more than a year and a half up
close with Bennu, they’re starting to better understand these dynamic particle-ejection
A collection of studies in a special edition of the Journal of
Geophysical Research: Planets homes in on the asteroid and these enigmatic
particles. The studies provide a detailed look at how these particles act when
in space, possible clues as to how they’re ejected, and even how their trajectories
can be used to approximate Bennu’s weak gravitational field.
Typically, we consider comets,
not asteroids, to be the active ones. Comets are composed of ice, rock, and
dust. As those ices are heated by the Sun, the vapor fizzes from the surface,
dust and chunks of the comet nucleus are lost to space, and a long dusty tail
forms. Asteroids, on the other hand, are composed mainly of rock and dust (and perhaps
a smaller quantity of ice), but it turns out some of these space rocks can be surprisingly
“We thought that Bennu’s
boulder-covered surface was the wild card discovery at the asteroid, but these
particle events definitely surprised us,” said Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx
principal investigator and a professor at the University of Arizona. “We’ve
spent the last year investigating Bennu’s active surface, and it’s provided us
with a remarkable opportunity to expand our knowledge of how active asteroids
Cameras on OSIRIS-REx
(short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith
Explorer) spotted rock particles being repeatedly launched into space during a January 2019 survey of the asteroid, which is about
a third of a mile (565 meters) wide at its equator.
One of the studies, led by senior research scientist Steve Chesley at NASA’s
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, found that most of these
pebble-size pieces of rock, typically measuring around a quarter-inch (7 millimeters),
were pulled back to Bennu under the asteroid’s weak gravity after a short hop,
sometimes even ricocheting back into space after colliding with the surface. Others
took longer to return to the surface, remaining in orbit for a few days and up
to 16 revolutions. And some were ejected with enough oomph to completely escape
from the Bennu environs.
By tracking the
journeys of hundreds of ejected particles, Chesley and his collaborators were also
able to better understand what might be causing the particles to launch from
the surface of Bennu. The particle sizes match what is expected for thermal
fracturing (as the asteroid’s surface is repeatedly heated and cooled while it
rotates), but the locations of the ejection events also match the modeled
impact locations of meteoroids (small rocks hitting the surface of Bennu as it
orbits the Sun). It may even be a combination of these phenomena, added
Chesley. But to come to a definitive answer, more observations are needed.
very existence poses numerous scientific questions, the particles also served
as high-fidelity probes of Bennu’s gravity field. Many particles were orbiting
Bennu far closer than would be safe for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, and so their
trajectories were highly sensitive to the irregular gravity of Bennu. This
allowed researchers to estimate the Bennu’s gravity even more precisely than
was possible with OSIRIS-REx’s instruments.
particles were an unexpected gift for gravity science at Bennu since they
allowed us to see tiny variations in the asteroid’s gravity field that we would
not have known about otherwise,” said Chesley.
only one or two particles are ejected per day, and because they are in a very
low-gravity environment, most are moving slowly. As such, they pose little
threat to OSIRIS-REx, which will attempt to briefly touch down on the asteroid on Oct. 20 to scoop up surface material, which
may even include particles that were ejected before dropping back to the
If all goes as planned,
the spacecraft will return to Earth in September 2023 with a cache of Bennu’s material
for scientists to study further.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight
Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides overall mission management, systems
engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante
Lauretta of the University of Arizona in Tucson is the principal investigator,
and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s
science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in
Denver built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. Goddard and KinetX
Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx
is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s
Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science
Mission Directorate in Washington.
For more information on NASA’s
News Media Contact
Ian J. O’Neill / DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
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Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory