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A Pit of Plastic Balls: The Strange Surface of Asteroid Bennu

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Today, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission landed on the surface of Bennu, an asteroid that orbits near Earth in the solar system’s asteroid belt. It was the first time that humans have ever set foot on an asteroid, but did the landing go as planned? What exactly does the surface of Bennu look like? According to one OSIRIS-REx scientist, it looks like something you might find in your toy box or your child’s sandbox — it looks like a pit of plastic balls. Read more about this fascinating story at The New York Times.

Where is Bennu?

Bennu is an asteroid that was discovered in 1999 by the LINEAR Project. It is a near-Earth object, meaning that it has a orbit that brings it close to our planet. NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission landed on Bennu in 2018, and found that the surface of the asteroid was covered in a pit of plastic balls. Many scientists were surprised with this finding, because they expected to find dust or gravel on the surface. However, Bennu had loose dirt with small rocks like ones you might find at the beach. Furthermore, this strange material was not in pits or piles like a sandbox; rather, it had formed into smooth spheres about three feet across. Scientists speculate that these spheres are likely loose chunks of material from asteroids hitting each other over time - making them a new type of geological formation!

Where did it come from?

Scientists believe that Bennu was born in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter about 4.5 billion years ago. It's thought to be a fragment of a much larger asteroid that broke apart due to gravitational forces. The name Bennu comes from an ancient Egyptian myth about a heron-like bird that was associated with the sun god Ra. According to the myth, Bennu was responsible for bringing life to the world. After Osiris became ruler of Egypt, he killed his brother Set in a battle over whether Osiris or Set should rule. As punishment for killing his brother, Osiris was killed by his sister and set adrift on the Nile River. Ra brought him back to life as a divine phoenix so he could rule Egypt again - which he did until one day when he fell off his throne at his palace after being wounded by Set’s crocodile (or according to another version by accidentally sitting on a knife). For this reason, Bennu is also linked with ideas about death and resurrection (in this case through rebirth).

Where is it going?

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Bennu is a 1,640-foot-wide asteroid that's been orbiting the sun for 4.5 billion years. Every six years, it comes closer to Earth than any other known asteroid. It's currently about 200 million miles from Earth and is moving closer at the rate of about one foot per year. NASA has been tracking Bennu since 1999, and in 2016, they launched the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the asteroid up close. One of their objectives was to better understand how asteroids impact Earth. When an asteroid impacts the planet, dust and debris are thrown into the atmosphere, sometimes blocking out sunlight and causing global cooling on Earth. Although scientists estimate that there have been more than 100 major impacts on our planet over time, none have occurred during recorded history because we can see them coming with telescopes. Bennu could be different - when it orbits around its closest point to Earth (about 2 million miles) every six years, it could impact us if we don't take precautions ahead of time!

What does it look like?

On October 20, 2019, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made a historic landing on the asteroid Bennu. What they found was a surface that looked like a pit of plastic balls. The balls are actually boulders that have been covered in a thin layer of dust. This dust is what gives the asteroid its strange surface texture. But scientists are interested in more than just the outside appearance. They want to know how bennu might have impacted Earth billions of years ago, and if it will come back again someday. So far, it looks like bennu hasn’t changed much since it last collided with Earth and it doesn’t seem likely to for many millennia to come.

What have we learned about asteroids so far?

We've learned that asteroids can have a variety of different surfaces. For example, the surface of asteroid Bennu is covered in a layer of plastic balls. This is thought to be the result of an impact that happened long ago. Although we don't know much about the effects of an asteroid impact, we do know that it would be devastating. That's why it's so important for us to continue to study them and learn as much as we can. And now with NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to bennu, this has never been more possible. What could happen if an asteroid struck Earth? It could wipe out all life on our planet or cause major climate change.

How do scientists know what an asteroid looks like up close?

For the past few years, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has been studying asteroid Bennu from afar. But in December 2018, the spacecraft finally reached its destination and landed on the asteroid’s surface. What scientists found was a surface that looked like a pit of plastic balls.
So how does this affect the Bennu impact effects? Scientists are still trying to figure that out. But one thing is for sure: the surface of Bennu is very different from what they expected. And that could have big implications for how we study asteroids in the future. When asteroids enter Earth's atmosphere, some burn up while others make it all the way to the ground and cause damage. These impacts can also throw up tons of dust into our atmosphere, which may be bad news for climate change research. Plus, if an asteroid lands near your home it can be devastating—it would take a lot less energy than an explosion or earthquake to level your house.
What’s more troubling is that there are millions of large asteroids close enough to Earth that if they were ever pushed just slightly off course by solar radiation or gravity fields, their orbits could intersect with ours—potentially causing another dinosaur extinction event!
Scientists now know that there are other things they need to account for when evaluating bennu impact effects.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Hasnain Qazi

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