Quirks & Quarks

A NASA probe with Canadian content will touch an asteroid next week

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will touch down on the near-Earth asteroid Bennu next week and collect samples that may provide clues to the origin of life on Earth.

The OSIRIS-REx mission mapped asteroid Bennu with a Canadian LIDAR

Artist's impression of the OSIRIS-REx landing site called Nightingale (circled) on Bennu. The parking lot is superimposed for scale. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will touch down on the near-Earth asteroid Bennu on Tuesday, Oct. 20, with help from Canadian technology. Bennu is 500 metres in diameter and its elliptical orbit takes it close to Earth every six years. 

OSIRIS-REx approaching Bennu (artist's impression) (NASA/Goddard)

Made in Canada

A new study reveals how Canada's OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) was able to map the surface of Bennu to understand the asteroid better, and also help identify a suitable landing site. Michael Daly, a professor of Earth and Space Science at York University in Toronto, and the lead scientist on OLA, led the study and helped develop the instrument for the mission along with the Canadian Space Agency.

OSIRIS-REx drops by Bennu. NASA/Goddard

OLA scanned the asteroid's surface and took almost three billion individual measurements to create a 3D model of Bennu. This information was used in choosing a safe landing site, called Nightingale, free of boulders dangerous to a spacecraft.  

Playing TAG with an asteroid

OSIRIS-REx will perform a touch-and-go (TAG) type landing, which means it will not stay on the surface for any length of time. A sampling tool will be lowered from the spacecraft and will use nitrogen to blow free fine particles on the surface of Bennu, which will then be collected in the dish of the sampling tool. At least 60 grams of material will be collected for analysis when OSIRIS-REx returns to Earth in 2023.

The particles may reveal the age of the asteroid and more about its composition, including any compounds, such as water, that may have been key to kick-starting life on Earth. Canada will receive a portion of the returned sample as a partner in the mission.

3D map of Bennu's topography. Canadian Space Agency

Written and produced by Mark Crawley.



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