NASA probe finds signs of water on nearby asteroid Bennu

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 Poly Cam images collected on Dec. 2 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 Poly Cam images collected on Dec. 2 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles

The discovery of water on Bennu is definitely exciting, but scientists will need to temper their joy just a bit considering it'll be a long time before OSIRIS-REx actually returns samples back to Earth.

The data was collected during the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission's approach phase, between mid-August and early December, when the spacecraft arrived at a location about 12 miles from the asteroid, the release said.

There's no liquid water on the asteroid, but there's plenty of it in the form of wet clay.

Bennu was worth the two-year wait to reach it.

The OSIRIS-REx mission's goals include understanding what kinds of stuff asteroids contain, characterising Bennu's motion in case its trajectory ever threatens Earth, and learning about what the Solar System was like in its earliest days.

Today, scientists behind those instruments have found "hydroxyl groups", molecules of oxygen and hydrogen bonded together - but rather than existing on their own, they're likely bonded to Bennu's clay minerals, according to NASA.

The agency's OSIRIS-REx probe, which just arrived at Bennu last week, has already found hydrated minerals on the 1,640-foot-wide (500 meters) near-Earth asteroid, mission team members announced today (Dec. 10). Scientists believe asteroids and comets crashing into early Earth may have delivered organic compounds and water that seeded the planet for life, and atomic-level analysis of samples from Bennu could provide key evidence to support that hypothesis. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu's parent body, a much larger asteroid.

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Additionally, data obtained from the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) corroborate ground-based radar observations of Bennu and confirm that the original model - developed in 2013 by OSIRIS-REx Science Team Chief Michael Nolan, now based at LPL, and collaborators - closely predicted the asteroid's actual shape. Osiris is the god of the afterlife, while Bennu represents the heron and creation.

The $800 million Osiris-Rex mission began with a 2016 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Scientists around the world can then scrutinize the sample with a variety of laboratory equipment, making observations that address the main mission goals as well as a variety of other questions.

And there's a large boulder near the south pole of the asteroid, 164 feet high and 180 feet wide.

OSIRIS-REx will continue to survey the asteroid by flying by its north pole, equator and south pole, sometimes as close as 4.4 miles away, to determine mass.

It will go into orbit December 31 and orbit until mid-February before another series of surveying flybys.

The abundance of these obstacles means the OSIRIS-REx team must plan out its sample-grabbing activities in great detail and with great care.

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