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Spacecraft Uncovers Surprises On Asteroid Bennu

This view of asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on January 19 was created by combining two images taken by the NavCam 1 imager onboard NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Photo: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

An asteroid some 50 million miles away is spewing pebble and rock-sized debris — and scientists don’t know why. The findings are the latest from a robotic spacecraft on a mission to visit the asteroid.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft took images of the surface of asteroid Bennu spewing particles into space and some are raining back down on the rocky surface.

That makes this an “active asteroid,” said OSRIS-REx principle investigator Dante Loretta. There are only about a dozen active asteroids out of around 800,000 asteroids discovered in the solar system.

“This is incredibly exciting,” said Loretta. “We don’t know the mechanism that is causing this right now, in fact we’re still learning how to process the data, analyze the information and make sense of what’s going on at this asteroid.”

The spacecraft is set to fly close to the surface of the asteroid, collect a sample of the particles and send it back to Earth. UCF’s Humberto Campins is co-investigator on the mission and said the spacecraft has competed initial imaging of the surface.

“We found out that this thing has got meter to ten meter size boulders and so it makes the selection of the site to go down and do the sampling a little more challenging than anticipated,” said Campins.

Planetary scientists hope findings from Bennu can uncover how our solar system formed. But the initial findings, especially the observations of the asteroid spewing debris into space, are raising even more questions about asteroids.

“We do not know yet how the particles are being released from the surface, but they pose a whole new set of questions,” said Campins. “This is what science is about – inquiry and discovery. It is the most exciting time of my career.”

Before OSIRIS-REx launch from Cape Canaveral back in 2016. A capsule containing the sample of asteroid regolith will return to Earth in 2023.

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »