Context: Recently, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explore) spacecraft briefly touched asteroid Bennu.

More on the news:

  • Recently, the spacecraft’s robotic arm called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), made an attempt to “TAG” the asteroid at a sample site.
  • The asteroid was discovered by a team from the NASA-funded Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research team in 1999.

About the OSIRIS-REx mission:

  • Launched in: 2016 and reached its target in 2018. The spacecraft is meant to collect samples of dust and pebbles from asteroid Bennu and deliver them back to Earth in 2023.
  • This is NASA’s first mission meant to return a sample from the ancient asteroid. 
  • The mission is essentially a seven-year-long voyage and will conclude when at least 60 grams of samples are delivered back to the Earth. 
  • As per NASA, the mission promises to bring the largest amount of extraterrestrial material back to our planet since the Apollo era. 

Significance of studying asteroid Bennu:

  • Relatively close to the Earth: Bennu is an asteroid about as tall as the Empire State Building and located at a distance of about 200 million miles away from the Earth. 
  • Information about the formation and history of planets and the sun: Bennu hasn’t undergone drastic changes since its formation over billions of years ago and therefore it contains chemicals and rocks dating back to the birth of the solar system. 
  • To check if the asteroid might be potentially hazardous.

What do we know about the asteroid so far?

  • A B-type asteroid: Implying that it contains significant amounts of carbon and various other minerals.  
  • Age of the asteroid: Scientists believe that it was formed in the first 10 million years of the solar system’s formation, implying that it is roughly 4.5 billion years old. 
  • A Near Earth Object (NEO): That might strike the Earth in the next century, between the years 2175 and 2199. NEOs are comets and asteroids nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits which allows them to enter the Earth’s neighbourhood.

An asteroid

  • Asteroids are rocky objects much smaller than planets that orbit the Sun. They are also called minor planets. 
  • Asteroids are divided into three classes
    • Those found in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which is estimated to contain somewhere between 1.1-1.9 million asteroids.
    • The second group is that of trojans, which are asteroids that share an orbit with a larger planet. NASA reports the presence of Jupiter, Neptune and Mars trojans. In 2011, they reported an Earth trojan as well.
    • The third classification is Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA), which have orbits that pass close by the Earth. More than 10,000 such asteroids are known, out of which over 1,400 are classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs).

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