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Our first up-close look at the Bennu asteroid is a messy one

Published Dec 6th, 2018 6:22PM EST
bennu photo
Image: NASA

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe spent many months flying through space in order to meet up with its target, a large space rock known as Bennu. The spacecraft’s mission will be carried out over the next couple of years, but its arrival at Bennu means that we finally get a very close-up shot of the rock itself. And boy is it dirty.

One of the interesting things about asteroids is that they tend not to look like you might imagine. We’ve been taught by science fiction to think that asteroids are one big chunk of bumpy rock but the reality is far different. As you can clearly see from the images, Bennu is a big dusty ball littered with debris.

Knowing what the surface of the asteroid is like is of utmost importance to the entire OSIRIS-REx mission, as the spacecraft will need to pick a place to eventually land. After about a year of surveying, the machine will touch down on the asteroid and snatch a sample of its surface before flying it back to Earth where scientists can study the material in greater detail.

The images of Bennu’s surface mirror those sent back from Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe which traveled to another asteroid, called Ryugu, and touched down on its surface. The team handling the probe was quick to note how incredibly bumpy and rough the surface of the asteroid was, and it would appear Bennu is much the same.

Asteroids like these have the potential to tell us a lot about the history of our Solar System as well as the material from which planets like Earth initially formed. Scientists are always eager to study new planets and distant worlds but it might be that much smaller objects like Bennu can tell us even more about where we all started.

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