Most accurate model of Bennu reveals new details about this ancient space rock

Of all the floating piles of rubble in space, asteroid Bennu is special.

The diamond-shaped asteroid was first discovered in 1999. Now it is the primary target of NASA’s first asteroid sample-return mission. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is currently orbiting around the ancient asteroid, preparing for its landing on October 20 for the first sample collection attempt.

But before it steals a chunk of Bennu, scientists have created a 3D model of the asteroid’s terrain, giving us our clearest picture yet of what we can expect when OSIRIS-REx makes landfall.

In a series of six published Thursday in the journals Science and Science Advances, researchers provide new insights about Bennu, and why we study asteroids in the first place.

, an associate professor at York University’s department of physics and astronomy and lead author of one of the recent released on Bennu, admits that he grew more and more fond of the asteroid the more he learned about it through the mission.

“Bennu represents an important class of asteroids, it’s a laboratory of early Solar System formation,” Daly tells Inverse. “[These asteroids] relatively haven’t been touched since the early Solar System.”

Bennu is a rare, B-type asteroid. Asteroids are divided into different types based on their chemical composition, and B-type denotes the most primitive kind of asteroid — in other words, Bennu has not significantly changed since it formed 4 billion years ago.

Using the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter, which is an instrument composed of a laser and a radar, Daly and his team put together 3D, digital model of Bennu’s terrain, with detailed analysis of the asteroid’s shape.

The team took almost 3 billion measurements of the asteroid to create the model, collecting ‘post-it stamps’ pieces of data that were 120 by 120 meters across.

At an unprecedented 20-cm resolution, the model shows the asteroid in fabulous detail and with extreme accuracy.

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