Asteroid Bennu: The Looming Threat and NASA’s Groundbreaking Mission
Sep 19, 2023
Discovered in 1999, the near-Earth asteroid Bennu has captured the attention of scientists and space enthusiasts for nearly 25 years. With a significant size, comparable to New York’s iconic Empire State Building, this colossal space rock orbits the Earth approximately every six years.
Researchers have been closely monitoring Bennu’s trajectory due to its potential to impact Earth in the distant future. Thus far, Bennu has had three close encounters with our planet in 1999, 2005, and 2011. Experts from the OSIRIS-REx science team have deduced the chances of Bennu hitting Earth to be a minute 1 in 2,700, or 0.037%, with the most probable date being September 24, 2182.
OSIRIS-REx: NASA’s Pioneering Space Mission
The potential threat posed by Bennu led NASA to initiate the OSIRIS-REx mission, an ambitious seven-year-long project. The acronym OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer. This groundbreaking mission had the primary goal of closely studying Bennu and collecting a sample from its surface.
The mission achieved a significant milestone in October 2020 when the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made brief contact with Bennu, successfully collecting a sample weighing about 250 grams, the most considerable sample ever extracted from space. This sample is scheduled to crash-land in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert this Sunday. The spacecraft will release a capsule, about the size of a mini-fridge, into Earth’s atmosphere, which will travel at a staggering 28,000 mph and withstand intense heat before safely landing.
Understanding the Solar System and Potential Life Origins
Apart from the imminent threat that Bennu poses, the asteroid holds vital clues about our universe’s history. The sample extracted from Bennu is believed to contain untainted material that reveals secrets from the early solar system, approximately 4.5 billion years ago. An
astrophysicist Hakeem Oluyesi emphasizes the significance of this mission, stating to ABC News, “This is pure, untainted material revealing early solar system secrets. A longshot discovery would be finding biological molecules or even precursor molecules for life.”
Nicola Fox, an associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, echoed this sentiment. She believes that the material might shed light on the processes that birthed our solar system and potentially how life on Earth originated.
The Potential Impact: A Comparative Analysis
If Bennu were to collide with Earth, the ramifications would be substantial. Scientists estimate that the asteroid’s impact would release approximately 1,200 megatons of energy, equivalent to 22 atomic bombs. However, to provide perspective, the asteroid believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago had the power of 10 billion atomic bombs. This massive asteroid, estimated to have been around 6 miles wide, was powerful enough to cause tsunamis, and wildfires, and throw so much dust into the atmosphere that it obscured the sun.
Bennu: The Origins of Its Name
In an interesting tidbit, the asteroid wasn’t always known as Bennu. It received its name in 2013, thanks to a nine-year-old from North Carolina who won a naming competition. The name Bennu is derived from an ancient Egyptian deity.
Preparedness for Potential Threats
Bennu’s study underscores the importance of preparedness. While the chances of Bennu impacting Earth remain minuscule, the insights garnered from the OSIRIS-REx mission empower scientists and policymakers to develop mitigation strategies. Should a more imminent threat from another celestial body emerge, the learnings from Bennu’s study would play a pivotal role in Earth’s defense.
Moreover, by closely monitoring and studying near-Earth objects like Bennu, we are refining our techniques, honing our tools, and expanding our knowledge. This proactive approach will be invaluable not only for Earth’s defense but also for future space exploration endeavors.
The study and subsequent sample collection from Bennu serve a dual purpose. It not only equips humanity with the knowledge to possibly deflect a potential future threat but also enlightens us about our own past, tracing back billions of years. This mission exemplifies humanity’s relentless quest for knowledge and the lengths we’ll go to safeguard our future, ensuring that generations to come are equipped with the knowledge and resources necessary to face the challenges of the vast cosmos.