NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission won’t just take pretty pictures of the asteroid Bennu—it will also help scientists learn whether the rock will one day threaten Earth. There are plenty of reasons to study asteroids. They could be potential mines for precious resources like water and heavy elements, and they contain clues we can study to learn what the Solar System was like in its earliest days. But also, big things slamming into Earth can have some catastrophic consequences. So scientists are interested in that, too. Bennu is a 1,600-foot-wide asteroid that orbits the Sun relatively close to the Earth. OSIRIS-REx, the NASA mission tasked with studying it, launched in September 2016 and arrived at its target this past Monday. The spacecraft carries five instruments: a camera suite, a LIDAR system (like radar, but with a laser instead of radio waves), and three spectrometers, which measure different wavelengths of light to determine the asteroid’s composition. Bennu is an especially important target when it comes to our own survival. Around every six years, it comes relatively close to the Earth (“close” in cosmic terms, but very far by any other measure). Models suggest that during its close approaches between the years 2175 and 2196, it has a 1 in 2,700 chance of colliding with us. That’s still incredibly small (a 99.963 percent chance of a miss), but Bennu is a big rock—even slim odds are too great to ignore when civilization is at stake. Why don’t astronomers know for sure whether we’re safe?… [Read full story]
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