NASA spacecraft spots particle plumes erupting from the surface of asteroid Bennu

NASA's plan to scoop up dirt from asteroid hits a snag

Shortly after the discovery of the particle plumes on January 6, the mission science team increased the frequency of observations, and subsequently detected additional particle plumes during the following two months. Bennu is covered in unsafe boulders.

"The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career", Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in a NASA news release.

Studying Asteroid Bennu is helping NASA scientists to understand the solar system's origins, gather data on future asteroid mining and monitor the threat asteroids pose to Earth.

NASA's first mission involving an asteroid sample return, OSIRIS-REx launched in September 2016 to "get acquainted" with Bennu. If all goes as planned, OSIRIS-REx will return its sample to Earth in 2023. "Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started", Lauretta said.

The asteroid Bennu was thought to have wide, open areas suitable for the task. Bennu also revealed itself to be more rugged than expected, challenging the mission team to alter its flight and sample collection plans, due to the rough terrain.

A mission to sample an asteroid that could tell scientists more about the origin of the solar system has gotten more complicated. The researchers don't now understand why this is happening, but it poses no risk to the spacecraft.

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The OSIRIS-REx team initially spotted the particle plumes in images while the spacecraft was orbiting Bennu at a distance of about one mile (1.61 kilometers).

OSIRIS-REx will now have to be flown to a smaller area where boulders are less concentrated. It is due to collect a rock sample using its extendable arm but the sampling is proving more hard than anticipated due to the amount of larger boulders on the surface.

Instead of a smooth surface sprinkled with a few large boulders, scientists discovered a rough, rocky planetoid spewing plumes of dust and gravel.

"The original mission design was based on a sample site that is hazard-free, with a 50-metre diameter", he said.

The greatest surprise of the mission happened only a few days in and an unexpected observation occurred signaling activity on Bennu, the researchers said.

The larger number of boulders and the smaller sample site is also expected to require much more precise maneuvering by the spacecraft during its descent to the surface. And scientists have already been confounded by Bennu, mere months after NASA arrived at the asteroid. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise.While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration.

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