NASA’s first asteroid-sampling mission has returned a pair of stunning photos from the orbit of asteroid Bennu.
The 1,650-foot-wide space rock lies some 71 million miles from Earth and is currently orbited by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which slid into a tight orbit around the asteroid on the last day of 2018.
The new snapshots offer two different views of the space rock’s south pole and are perhaps the clearest, most detailed pictures of asteroid Bennu that we’ve seen so far.
The images were taken by the probe’s NavCam 1 navigation camera on January 17, when the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft buzzed asteroid Bennu from a distance of only about one mile away. While the mission has not yet started collecting data with its scientific camera suite (OCAMS), the probe has kept a keen eye on Bennu with the NavCam 1, regularly imaging the asteroid’s surface, explains NASA.
The new photos are incredible and show a very detailed look of Bennu’s rugged surface. The snapshots even reveal a close-up look of one of the asteroid’s giant boulders — a 165-foot-wide behemoth sticking out of Bennu’s side.
The massive boulder measures about 10 percent of the asteroid’s full diameter and is visible in both photos — “fully visible in the middle of the left frame and in partial shadow in lower portion of right frame,” notes the OSIRIS-REx team.
At less than 1,700 feet wide, Bennu is “around the size of Chicago’s Willis Tower or New York’s Freedom Tower,” remarks Gizmodo. The asteroid boasts the record of smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft — a title garnered merely a month ago, as previously reported by the Inquisitr.
The small asteroid only has a slight gravitational field, which makes it tricky for the OSIRIS-REx probe to orbit it. To monitor its path around Bennu, the spacecraft makes use of its navigation camera and the photos it takes of the asteroid’s surface. These images help OSIRIS-REx calibrate its difficult orbit around asteroid Bennu.
Launched in September of 2016, the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft has traveled around 1.4 billion miles in its journey to catch up with asteroid Bennu — which is floating through space between the orbits of Earth and Mars – to study the carbon-rich space rock in a series of close flybys.
The probe will continue to circle Bennu until the end of February. Afterward, the mission will kick off another set of flybys in order to take a more detailed look at Bennu’s surface, the OSIRIS-REx team announced via Twitter.
For those keeping track at home… I've traveled just under 2.2 billion km (1.4 billion miles) since leaving home in Sept. 2016.
— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) January 28, 2019
Earlier this month, the probe beamed back a gorgeous photo of Bennu, showcasing the asteroid, Earth, and the moon in the same frame, the Inquisitr reported at the time.