Megapixels: Asteroid Bennu is …exploding?
New images reveal peculiar behavior from the celestial object
Ever since the NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx reached the asteroid known as Bennu in December of last year, it’s been quietly orbiting and snapping photos. It is this writer’s personal opinion that, from a distance, those photos make Bennu look like a hot pocket or perhaps a Totino’s pizza roll—which would be awesome, since the mouth-watering asteroid is as roughly as wide as the Empire State building is tall.
But new images released on Tuesday reveal much more than a tasty space snack. Bennu appears to be spewing out dusty, gravel-sized debris, which is extremely rare behavior for an asteroid. “It’s one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career,” Dante Lauretta, lead investigator of the mission, told The Atlantic‘s Marina Koren.
It’s not immediately clear why Bennu is ejecting so many little bits from its surface. For one, it could be spinning so fast that it’s literally flying apart. Or, light from the sun could cause parts of the asteroid to become charged and repel from one another, causing crumbs to burst off from the surface of my favorite extra-large celestial pizza roll. It could even be something else altogether—scientists will need to do more research to say for sure.
Recent photos have also revealed Bennu has a much bumpier and rockier surface than we thought—originally, astronomers predicted it’d be smooth like a river-worn pebble. But as Ryan F. Mandelbaum notes for Gizmodo, the asteroid has a smattering of different-sized rocks on its surface, which could complicate OSIRIS-REx’s future plans to grab a sample from the object. Seeing what Bennu is made of is particularly interesting because it’s an elusive B-type asteroid. That means it could be filled with organic compounds and minerals that hold onto water.
The spacecraft is set to attempt to grab a surface sample in mid-2020. Until then, it will be using thermal, X-ray, infrared, and other instruments to get a sense of the asteroid’s geology and topography. And, of course, we can only hope it’ll continue to shoot breathtaking photos of Bennu sassily spewing debris from its surface.