Bennu bound: NASA readies for historic mission to study an asteroid

In September, NASA will launch a probe to collect a sample of rock from an asteroid known as Bennu. 

Courtesy of NASA
This artist's concept shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approaching the asteroid Bennu. NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth for study.

The same asteroid that could provide NASA with information on how life in the solar system began could, say some cosmos gazers, someday cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. 

But we have about 1.5 centuries to prepare for that doomsday scenario. 

In the meantime, NASA plans to launch the unmanned OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in September to collect rock sample from an asteroid known as "Bennu," chosen by scientists for its carbon-rich surface. Once the craft reaches the asteroid in August 2018, OSIRIS-REx will send a probe to vacuum up gravel and soil from Bennu's surface. 

As The Christian Science Monitor's Lonnie Shektman reported in February: 

Bennu is made of molecules containing primarily carbon and hydrogen atoms, fundamental components of life on Earth. By analyzing this organic material collected on Bennu, scientists will be able to study the materials that may have had a role in the origin of life and have since been very well preserved.

Scientists say that along with offering possible information about how life began on Earth, the samples could potentially bring us closer to knowing whether life has ever existed on Mars or Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. 

"We believe Bennu is a time capsule from the very beginnings of our solar system," said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator on the OSIRIS-REx mission, to ABC News. "So the sample can potentially hold answers to the most fundamental questions human beings ask, like 'Where do we come from?'"

Along with collecting rock samples, OSIRIS-REx will map every detail of the asteroid.

"We need to know everything about Bennu — its size, mass and composition," said Dr. Lauretta to the Times of London. "This could be vital data for future generations."

But the special interest astronomers have taken in Bennu isn't only due to its potential to better their understanding of the solar system. They say there's also a chance the asteroid could crash into the Earth someday. 

Bennu crosses Earth's orbit every six years, growing closer each time. In 2135, the asteroid may enter a "keyhole" between the Earth and the Moon, an event that would "tweak Bennu's orbit, potentially putting it on course for the Earth later that century," Lauretta told the Times. 

But while the potential impact is huge, the chances of such an event actually happening are not: Bennu has a 1 in 2,700 chance of hitting Earth, ABC News reports. 

Furthermore, the collision wouldn't happen until 2175 or 2196. By that time, scientists would likely have the technology to destroy the asteroid before it could hit, Lauretta says. 

In other words, "Don't buy asteroid insurance." 

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