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NASA’s asteroid probe shot Bennu with a laser, and this is the result

Published Apr 5th, 2019 5:37PM EDT
bennu laser scan
Image: NASA/University of Arizona/CSA/York/MDA

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has been steadily progressing since the spacecraft arrived at the diamond-shaped space rock known as Bennu a few months back, but not everything has gone completely to plan.

The rock ended up being far more, well, dirty than NASA originally expected. Bennu’s surface is absolutely packed with debris, posing a challenge for NASA’s team that still has to decide where to have the probe touch down on the asteroid to collect samples. Now, using a laser instrument built into OSIRIS-REx, NASA has a detailed look at how dangerous the surface truly is.

In a new blog post, NASA explains how it used a tool called the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) to scan much of Bennu’s surface. The instrument paints a 3D picture of the hard surfaces the laser bounces off of, giving NASA researchers a detailed glimpse at the asteroid’s rocky surface.

Choosing a location for the probe to touch down could ultimately determine whether the mission’s most dangerous maneuver — a brief touchdown and sample collection — succeeds or fails. Touching down in an area with too much debris could be catastrophic for the probe, resulting in damage to the spacecraft itself and potentially compromising one of its major objectives.

The three-dimensional laser model of the asteroid gives NASA’s team a bit more information on what parts of the asteroid appear safer than others. Avoiding large boulders is obviously key, but with so few seemingly “clean” spaces on Bennu it’ll still be a challenge to decide where best to collect a sample.

NASA still has plenty of time to make that decision, however, with the probe scheduled to remain in orbit around Bennu for the duration of 2019 before attempting its most risky move. In the meantime we’ll be learning more and more about the oddly-shaped asteroid as OSIRIS-REx continues to relay data back to Earth.