NASA releases info on tiny asteroid Bennu

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 Poly Cam images collected on 2 December by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 24 kilometres. Image NASA  Goddard  University of Arizona

"The [NASA] team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, Bennu's rocky material interacted with water".

Two spectrometers on the spacecraft, OVIRS and OTES, discovered hydroxyls, or molecules of oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together.

OSIRIS-REx was launched in 2016 and caught up with Bennu on December 3 after a 1.4 million-mile trip.

An 80 million ton asteroid which could "one day hit earth" has been pictured for the first time by Nasa.

The $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission (whose name is short for "Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer") launched in September 2016 and began its Bennu-approach phase in mid-August of this year.

NASA's first asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx, reached the asteroid Bennu only a week ago, but it's already learning more about this time capsule from the early solar system.

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But now that OSIRIS-REx is up close and personal with Bennu, it has found the asteroid's surface more rocky than expected, with more boulders.

There's no liquid water on the asteroid, but there's plenty of it in the form of wet clay. Bennu is too small to have been the host of the water on its own, the space agency explains, which points toward its bigger parent body as the likely source.

The mission scientists were encouraged to learn that they were also accurate in predicting and modeling Bennu's actual shape, including diameter, rotation rate and inclination, nearly exactly.

The mission now is performing a preliminary survey of the asteroid, flying the spacecraft in passes over Bennu's north pole, equator, and south pole at ranges as close as 4.4 miles (7 km) to better determine the asteroid's mass. "We have not discovered any insurmountable issues at Bennu so far", said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at LPL. Bennu, roughly a third of a mile wide (500 meters), orbits the sun at roughly the same distance as Earth.

"The spacecraft is healthy and the science instruments are working better than required", he added. Since the average asteroid has a density around 187 pounds per cubic foot (3,000 kg/m ), this makes Bennu much less dense than the average. The spacecraft's first orbital insertion is scheduled for December 31, and OSIRIS-REx will remain in orbit until mid-February 2019, when the mission transitions into the next survey phase.

Ultimately, scientists believe that this is how life on Earth began - when asteroids carrying liquid collided with out planet in its early formation, providing the ingredients for water and ultimately life. The craft will remain in orbit until February 2019, when it will embark on a series of flybys to survey the asteroid.

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