Hey remember that Japanese mission to drop adorable little hopping robots onto an asteroid? Wasn’t NASA planning on doing something like that so that the good ol’ US of A could get its hands on some asteroid bits too? Ummm yeah, NASA was planning to drop by near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu and pick up comet bits and they actually did do that…back in October 2020. I guess I got a little too distracted by whatever else was going on in October of 2020 to write about the mission. Sorry… (apparently I did manage to write about some pretty special bats though).

So, to quickly recap, 101955 Bennu is a carbonaceous comet about 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter which orbits the sun in the Apollo group of asteroids (a group of solar-system asteroids which orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mars–see the diagram immediately below). Bennu looks roughly like an old fashioned spinning top–if that top were enormous and made out of garbage from outer space (as stunningly depicted in the never ending movie at the top of this post). Because of its (relative) proximity and strange composition, Bennu was chosen as the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

M is Mars; E is Earth; V is Venus; The Yellow Dot is the Sun; The Green Cloud is the Apollo Asteroids

OSIRIS-REx launched back in 2016 and spent two years flying to Bennu. From 2018 to 2020 the spacecraft made extensive surveys of Bennu in preparation for the October 2020 landing event (when the mothership sent down a lander to take a bite out of the ball of dust and ice). This is where the story gets interesting, since, apparently Bennu is not really one big gray ball, but a big gray ball made of lots and lots of little pieces of rubble. NASA scientists have likened the landing to landing in a ball-pit in one of those 80s/90s theme restaurants with extensive play facilities for children.

The Surface of 101955 Bennu as described by top NASA scientists

As the lander took a sample bite of asteroid it actually began sinking into the gray nodules like a child lost at Chuck E. Cheese’s and the whole mission seemed in danger until the controllers decided enough was enough and blasted right out of there. Apparently this “ball pit incident” also explains why the lander could not quite bite down on its whole load of carbonaceous astro-bits and spewed some of its precious payload back into space before being secured. Don’t worry though, mission controllers confirm there is still plenty more than the minimum required 60 grams of sample asteroid material (some of which consists of mini-pebbles caught in steel velcro-style loops put inside the sample collector for exactly this purpose).

Also, there are pictures of all of this! Thanks NASA!

Now that Bennu has been mapped and sampled, OSIRIS-REx is returning to Earth to drop the precious sample into the Utah desert. After this cosmic layup, the spacecraft will then set course for 99942 Apophis, a space lozenge, approximately the size of the Empire State building, which briefly alarmed the good people of Earth back in 2004 when astronomers estimated it had a 2.4% chance of striking our planet (spoiler: it did not). Apophis is arguably less interesting to science in that it has less of a heterogeneous assortment of stuff than Bennu, but it might be more interesting to the brave cadets of the Space Force (does that still exist?), in that it is more characteristic of the sort of object known to threaten our beautiful blue-green world of delicate lifeforms with selfish genes. Ferrebeekeeper will keep a better eye on these asteroid missions and report about subsequent developments (provided that we don’t face more home-made challenges to our survival like we did in October 2020).

Artist’s concept showing the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu with the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism