NASA's OSIRIS REx mission has been steadily advancing on the diamond-shaped space rock Bennu since the spacecraft arrived several months ago, but not everything went according to plan.
The stone ended far more Well, dirtier than originally expected by NASA. Bennu's surface is full of debris, which poses a challenge for the NASA team to decide where the probe must touch the asteroid to collect samples. With a laser instrument integrated into OSIRIS-REx, NASA can now take a detailed look at how dangerous the surface really is.
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In a recent blog post, NASA explains how they used a tool called OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) to scan much of Bennu's surface. The instrument paints a 3D image of the hard surfaces from which the laser bounces off, giving NASA researchers a detailed look into the rocky surface of the asteroid.
The choice of where to place the probe can ultimately determine whether the mission's most dangerous maneuver – a short touchdown and a sample collection – succeeds or fails. Placing in an area with too much debris could be catastrophic to the spacecraft, which could damage the spacecraft itself and possibly compromise one of its main objectives.
The asteroid's three-dimensional laser model gives NASA some more information about which parts of the asteroid look safer than others. Obviously, avoiding big boulders is central, but with so few seemingly "clean" spaces on Bennu, it's still a challenge to decide where to best collect a sample.
NASA still has plenty of time to make that decision. The probe is expected to remain in orbit around Bennu in 2019 before taking its riskiest turn. In the meantime, we are learning more and more about the strangely shaped asteroid, while OSIRIS-REx continues to forward data to Earth.
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- NASA's asteroid probe fired Bennu with a laser, and this is the result
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