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Destination: 6.1m-wide heavenly body 2.7bn miles from Earth that can be detected on 3D laser scans
Brace yourselves, because this is a hard rock crash with Earth on the menu.
NASA has made the first ever landing of a small spacecraft on a tiny asteroid – a first that was made possible by the discovery of a gigantic 3D space rock called Bennu, found by the Phoenix orbiter.
Called the Osiris-Rex spacecraft, it will make its second space trip, piloted by an operator aboard the International Space Station, in 2016.
Asteroid Bennu shown as a black dot in the sky near Earth and the moon (Picture: Nasa)
Osiris-Rex will fly to Bennu, a massive asteroid, and aim its laser at it.
The laser beams will slowly tumble down from the spacecraft and slam into the surface, splitting up the asteroid into a few smaller rocks.
At least 250 tons of debris should fall from the sky every year for the next 1,200 years, if Bennu continues to move away from Earth.
Osiris-Rex will return in 2023 with samples of Bennu, the most promising space rock of its kind in the near-Earth orbit.
What’s up with asteroid Bennu? A 3.6-mile-wide (6.3km) space rock that Bennu is thought to be an older relative of comets. NASA believes Bennu could be a barite-covered object similar to the comet and it is thought to have significant water and organic material. Comets of Bennu’s size have a tightly-packed layer of gas and dust near the surface and the research suggests Bennu is likely covered in that same gas. With a relatively low gravity the asteroid is thought to be easily rocky.
It will return a small amount of material to Earth in 2023 after separation from Osiris-Rex.
The gravity on Bennu is an estimated 12-times that of Earth, causing scientists to believe the rock can be “disturbed” significantly and sent into a collision course with our planet.
The spacecraft looks like an old Mac Mini computer without its casing attached (Picture: Nasa)
“A spacecraft this small could be carried away and ejected by the impact,” said lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.
“This would be a significant deal on our planet as the grains we collect could be the size of peas.”
Osiris-Rex is roughly the size of a dishwasher.
But its smallness has given it a power source for two years.
Brace yourselves. That’n’ ain’t gonna happen again. pic.twitter.com/8RTOirCW7n — Cydney Hohl (@CydneyHohl) October 14, 2016
Its ion propulsion system will allow it to spend two years operating for a period of time like it is flying on wing power.
Then its razor-sharp carbon-composite structure will slow it down enough for the asteroid to pass by the spacecraft for a five-second encounter.
“On its second mission, the spacecraft is designed to deploy an electrically powered surface-level radar system to study the asteroid’s interior,” NASA said.
“The spacecraft will also collect samples that will be returned to Earth in 2023.”