NASA Current Affairs

Osiris-Rex: NASA’s asteroid-bound spacecraft swings by Earth

NASA’s asteroid-chasing spacecraft Osiris-Rex successfully swung by Earth to put it on desired trajectory towards near earth asteroid Bennu using Earth’s gravity. It passed within 17,237 kilometres from Earth above Antarctica.

During closest flyby, Osiris-Rex’s science instruments were tested by scanning Earth and moon as a practice for its operations at Bennu.

OSIRIS-REx

The OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) mission was launched in September 2016 for studying 101955 Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid. It is NASA’s first asteroid sampling mission. Japan already has visited an asteroid and returned some specks.

The spacecraft will reach small, roundish asteroid in 2018 and return to Earth after collecting some of its gravels by 2023. It will capture 2 ounces of dust on asteroid using its robotic arm without landing i.e. by hovering like a hummingbird stirred up by nitrogen gas thruster  and then begun its return trip to earth.

101955 Bennu is near-Earth carbonaceous asteroid about the size of a small mountain in the Apollo group. It was discovered in September 1999 by the LINEAR Project.

Significance of mission

NASA scientists believe that Bennu asteroid holds clues to origin of solar system and life and source of water and organic molecules found on Earth. Material returned from asteroid is expected to enable scientists to learn more about the formation and evolution of the Solar System. It will also give insights of initial stages of planet formation and the source of organic compounds which led to the formation of life on Earth.

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2006 VW139/288P: Astronomers spot strange binary asteroid with comet-like features

International team of astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have spotted an unusual object called 2006 VW139/288P having two asteroids orbiting each other with comet-like features. These include bright halo of material, called a coma, and long tail of dust. The odd object is first known binary asteroid that is also classified as a main-belt comet.

Asteroids and comets

Asteroids and comets are believed to be ancient remnants of earliest years of formation of our solar system more than four billion years ago. Asteroids are known as inactive, rocky body orbiting the Sun. Comets are bodies of ice, rock and organic compounds that can be several miles in diametre and they can be at times active. Ice of comets can vaporise in sunlight forming an atmosphere (coma) of dust and gas and, sometimes, a tail of dust and/or gas.

2006 VW139/288P

Hubble was used to image asteroid in September 2016 just before it made its closest approach to Sun. The images revealed that it was actually not one, but two asteroids of almost the same mass and size, orbiting each other at a distance of 96 km.

It was discovered by Spacewatch in November 2006 and its possible cometary activity was seen in November 2011 by Pan-STARRS after that it was given comet designation of 288P. The more recent Hubble observations revealed ongoing activity in binary system.

The combined features of binary asteroid are wide separation, near-equal component size, high eccentricity orbit, and comet-like activity. These make it unique among few known binary asteroids that have a wide separation.

Significance: Understanding of 2006 VW139/288P’s origin and evolution may provide new insights into early days of solar system. The main-belt comets may help to answer how water came to a bone-dry Earth billions of years ago. As it is different from all other known binary asteroids, it will also help to answer some questions about how common such systems are in the asteroid belt.

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