NASA baffled by mysterious, unexplained ejections on asteroid Bennu

NASA seeking advice from Hayabusa2 team

Although numerous particles were ejected clear of asteroid, some particles orbited Bennu as satellites before returning to the asteroid's surface, according to NASA.

Recent observations also show that the asteroid's surface is more rugged than previously expected, and the OSRIS-REx mission team will likely have to change the spacecraft's flight and sample collection plans due to the rough terrain.

OSIRIS-REx (the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) arrived in orbit of Bennu on December 31 of previous year.

NASA is hoping its spacecraft will return a sample to Earth in 2023.

"That has never been seen before in any solar-system object", Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson told Marina Koren at The Atlantic. But the rugged terrain means it will instead have to aim for a much smaller safe area, like the smooth patch at top left. "That Bennu and Ryugu may be siblings yet exhibit some strikingly different traits implies there must be many exciting and mysterious astronomical processes we have yet to explore".

The mission science team detected particle plumes ejecting off of the surface on January 6, followed by additional plumes over the last two months.

NASA has concluded the particle clouds don't pose a danger to the spacecraft, giving OSIRIS-REx the all-clear to move in and investigate. At that point, the team increased the frequency of observations, finding the dust ejection was not a one-time event - Bennu does this continuously. Not only is Bennu shooting particles out into the void, but the asteroid is also much more rugged than scientists originally thought - which may make it a little bit harder for the spacecraft to grab a sample.

Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA's Planetary Science Division said: "The first three months of OSIRIS-REx's up-close investigation of Bennu have reminded us what discovery is all about - surprises, quick thinking, and flexibility". "We study asteroids like Bennu to learn about the origin of the solar system".

Asteroids are easy to imagine as inert rocks flying through space. Large rocks and boulders are peppered across Bennu's surface.

While details of the discovery remain hazy, it could suggest some asteroids are far more complex and poorly understood than ever expected. The original mission design was based on a sample site that is hazard-free, with an 25-metre radius.

In the meantime, OSIRIS-REx will continue to orbit Bennu and collect data, which is no small feat. Thanks to all that OSIRIS-REx has learned, the mission team now knows they will have to work extra hard to characterize and map the surface of Bennu before they start sampling. The $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) began with the launch of the spacecraft on September 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The beginning months of NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission's exploration of asteroid Bennu have revealed huge surprises, scientists stated Tuesday, together with plumes of particles streaming away from the asteroid, typically with sufficient velocity for rocks to interrupt out of Bennu's tenuous gravitational grip and escape into an area.

It has more than 200 boulders larger than 10 meters in diameter, and some stretching up to 30 meters, according to researchers writing in Nature Astronomy.

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