Nav: Home

Asteroid Bennu, target of NASA's sample return mission, is rotating faster over time

March 12, 2019

WASHINGTON -- In late 2018, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft arrived at Bennu, the asteroid it will be studying and sampling over the next several years.

Now, new research in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters shows Bennu is spinning faster over time - an observation that will help scientists understand the evolution of asteroids, their potential threat to Earth and if they could be mined for resources.

Bennu is 110 million kilometers (70 million miles) away from Earth. As it moves through space at about 101,000 kilometers per hour (63,000 miles per hour), it also spins, completing a full rotation every 4.3 hours.

The new research finds the asteroid's rotation is speeding up by about 1 second per century. In other words, Bennu's rotation period is getting shorter by about 1 second every 100 years.

While the increase in rotation might not seem like much, over a long period of time it can translate into dramatic changes in the space rock. As the asteroid spins faster and faster over millions of years, it could lose pieces of itself or blow itself apart, according to the study's authors.

Detecting the increase in rotation helps scientists understand the types of changes that could have happened on Bennu, like landslides or other long-term changes, that the OSIRIS-REx mission will look for.

"As it speeds up, things ought to change, and so we're going to be looking for those things and detecting this speed up gives us some clues as to the kinds of things we should be looking for," said Mike Nolan, a senior research scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is the lead author of the new paper and the head of the OSIRIS-REx mission's science team. "We should be looking for evidence that something was different in the fairly recent past and it's conceivable things may be changing as we go."

The OSIRIS-REx mission is scheduled to bring a sample of Bennu to Earth in 2023. Understanding Bennu's rotational change could help scientists figure out what asteroids can tell us about the origin of the solar system, how likely it is for asteroids to pose a threat to humans and if they could be mined for resources.

"If you want to do any of those things, you need to know what is affecting it," Nolan said.

Detecting a change

In order to understand Bennu's rotation, scientists studied data of the asteroid taken from Earth in 1999 and 2005, along with data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012. It was when they looked at the Hubble data that they noticed the rotation speed of the asteroid in 2012 didn't quite match their predictions based on the earlier data.

"You couldn't make all three of them fit quite right," Nolan said. "That was when we came up with this idea that it had to be accelerating."

The idea that the rotation of asteroids could speed up over time was first predicted around 2000 and first detected in 2007, according to Nolan. To date, this acceleration has only been detected in a handful of asteroids, he said.

The change in Bennu's rotation could be due to a change in its shape. Similar to how ice skaters speed up as they pull in their arms, an asteroid could speed up as it loses material.

Nolan and his co-authors suggest the reason for the increase in Bennu's rotation is more likely due to a phenomenon known the YORP effect. Sunlight hitting the asteroid is reflected back into space. The change in the direction of the light coming in and going out pushes on the asteroid and can cause it to spin faster or slower, depending on its shape and rotation.

The OSIRIS-REx mission will determine Bennu's rotation rate independently this year, which will help scientists nail down the reason for the increase in rotation. Since spacecraft will never visit the vast majority of asteroids, the measurements will also help scientists learn how well ground-based measurements are able to understand these far-away objects.

"By testing these predictions in a few cases, we will significantly improve our confidence in predictions made for other objects," the study's authors write.

The measurement of Bennu's acceleration rate combined with the arrival of OSIRIS-REx at the asteroid gives scientists a great opportunity to validate the new study's results and test theories about the YORP effect, said Desiree Cotto-Figueroa, an assistant professor of physics and electronics at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao, who was not involved in the new study.

"This is a great opportunity, in general, having this measurement and having the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx there observing this asteroid to help us better understand this effect, which is a dominant mechanism in the evolution of asteroids," she said.
-end-
Founded in 1919, AGU is a not-for-profit scientific society dedicated to advancing Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity. We support 60,000 members, who reside in 135 countries, as well as our broader community, through high-quality scholarly publications, dynamic meetings, our dedication to science policy and science communications, and our commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as many other innovative programs. AGU is home to the award-winning news publication Eos, the Thriving Earth Exchange, where scientists and community leaders work together to tackle local issues, and a headquarters building that represents Washington, D.C.'s first net zero energy commercial renovation. We are celebrating our Centennial in 2019. #AGU100

Authors:

M.C. Nolan: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA;

E.S. Howell: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA;

D.J. Scheeres: Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA;

J.W. McMahon: Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA;

O.Golubov: V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, Kharkiv, Ukraine; and Institute of Astronomy of V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, Kharkiv, Ukraine;

C.W. Hergenrother: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA;

J.P. Emery: Earth and Planetary Science Department, Planetary Geosciences Institute, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA;

K.S. Noll: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Solar System Exploration Division, Greenbelt, MD, USA;

S.R. Chesley: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA;

D.S. Lauretta: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA.

American Geophysical Union

Related Asteroid Articles:

Queen's University scientist warns of asteroid danger
A leading astrophysicist from Queen's University Belfast has warned that an asteroid strike is just a matter of time.
New study ranks hazardous asteroid effects from least to most destructive
If an asteroid struck Earth, which of its effects -- scorching heat, flying debris, towering tsunamis -- would claim the most lives?
Wrong-way asteroid plays 'chicken' with Jupiter
For at least a million years, an asteroid orbiting the 'wrong' way around the sun has been playing a cosmic game of chicken with giant Jupiter and with about 6,000 other asteroids sharing the giant planet's space, says a report published in the latest issue of Nature.
Ceres hosts organic compounds, and they formed on the asteroid, not beyond
Aliphatic organic compounds -- carbon-based building blocks that may have a role in the chemistry that creates life -- have been detected for the first time on Ceres, an asteroid and dwarf planet, a new study reveals.
It's a bird... It's a plane... It's the tiniest asteroid!
A team led by UA astronomer Vishnu Reddy has characterized the smallest known asteroid using Earth-based telescopes.
NASA to map Asteroid Bennu from the ground up
The OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter, or OLA will be used to create three-dimensional global topographic maps of Bennu and local maps of candidate sample sites.
NASA to map the surface of an asteroid
NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will travel to near-Earth asteroid Bennu to sample surface material and return it to Earth for study.
NASA instrument to use X-rays to map an asteroid
NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will launch September 2016 and travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu to harvest a sample of surface material and return it to Earth for study.
New type of meteorite linked to ancient asteroid collision
An ancient space rock discovered in a Swedish quarry is a type of meteorite never before found on Earth, and likely a remnant of a massive asteroid collision 470 million years ago that sent debris raining to Earth.
Scientists reconstruct the history of asteroid collisions
An international study, in which Spain's National Research Council (CSIC) participates, reveals that asteroids have endured a multitude of impact strikes since their formation 4,565 million years ago.

Related Asteroid Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#SB2 2019 Science Birthday Minisode: Mary Golda Ross
Our second annual Science Birthday is here, and this year we celebrate the wonderful Mary Golda Ross, born 9 August 1908. She died in 2008 at age 99, but left a lasting mark on the science of rocketry and space exploration as an early woman in engineering, and one of the first Native Americans in engineering. Join Rachelle and Bethany for this very special birthday minisode celebrating Mary and her achievements. Thanks to our Patreons who make this show possible! Read more about Mary G. Ross: Interview with Mary Ross on Lash Publications International, by Laurel Sheppard Meet Mary Golda...