About 185 million miles from you right now, one of NASA’s spacecraft is starting its journey back to Earth carrying a special cargo of dust and rocks. That material could change our understanding of how the Solar System was formed and how life on our planet came about. With all the news about the Perseverance Mars Rover, and the little-helicopter-that-could, Ingenuity, you might think that material is coming from Mars. Alas, no. It was collected on an asteroid named Bennu.
The asteroid Bennu
Barely one-third of a mile wide at its equator, Bennu is considered a perfect time capsule for events that took place 4.6 billion years ago. Asteroids are the rocky remains of the creation of our Solar System. Material scooped up from Bennu’s surface and returned to Earth could reveal how planets were formed and possibly, the origins of organic compounds that led to life, as we know it. The spacecraft NASA built for such a mission has the somewhat Ancient Egyptian-sounding name of OSIRIS-REx, which is an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer. It was launched back in 2016 and it took two years to reach Bennu. 
          Artist depiction of OSIRIS-REx above the surface of Bennu
In December 2018, OSIRIS-REx arrived and began orbiting around Bennu. After photographing and analyzing suitable sampling sites, the spacecraft dropped down briefly in October 2020.  Mission plans did not call for the spacecraft to actually land on the asteroid.
OSIRIS-REx collecting samples from the surface of Bennu
Instead, it used a probe-like Touch and Go Sampling Mechanism (TAGSAM) to successfully obtain rock and dust samples from the surface of Bennu. Once back up in orbit around the asteroid, more photographs confirmed that the mission was complete. With its precious cargo stored on board in the Sample Return Capsule, NASA controllers have now told OSIRIS REx to come on back home.
The spot on Bennu where OSIRIS-REx took a surface sample

The return trip to Earth will take another two years. As it approaches our planet in September 2023, OSIRIS-REx will jettison the Sample Return Capsule. The capsule will descend for a landing on the Air Force’s Test and Training Range in Utah, using a parachute like the one pictured below:

When it came to asteroids, Chesley Bonestell saw the good and the terrifying in them. They’ve long been considered a potential resource for precious minerals like platinum and gold. Any findings of this nature on Bennu will inevitably take us closer to mining asteroids for their riches.
      The original painting of Pittsburgh at L2 by Chesley Bonestell
Chesley showed the future of mining asteroids when he painted Pittsburgh at L2, which appeared on the cover of the October 1976 issue of Astronautics and Aeronautics magazine 45 years ago.
        The cover version of Pittsburgh at L2 by Chesley Bonestell
In his book Brief Answers to the Big Questions, physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking wrote that asteroids pose the biggest threat to our planet. Another collision with one of them, on the scale of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, could potentially bring about destruction of all life on Earth. Between the years 2175 and 2199 there is a 1-in-2700 chance that Bennu might collide with Earth. As a defense measure against such a calamity, one part of the OSIRIS-REx mission is to determine what effect its encounter had on Bennu’s orbit. Could spacecraft be used to alter the path of a Near Earth Object (NEO), like Bennu? Scientists will incorporate data from the OSIRIS-REx mission into an Asteroid Impact Avoidance study currently being put together by NASA.
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For an article called “The End of the World,” that appeared in the July 1947 issue of Coronet magazine, Chesley Bonestell painted his vision of what an impact with a NEO might look like; in this case a meteor crashing into Manhattan.
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Manhattan Meteor Crater (1947) by Chesley Bonestell
In 1979, Chesley had an asteroid named after him by the International Astronomical Union: 3129 Bonestell. Please click on the image below to see an excerpt from the award-winning documentary, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future, that covers Bennu’s historic mission:
Credit: Kerry O'Quinn                                      
Space Artist Chesley Bonestell
To find out where you can purchase or watch the entire documentary, please click on this image:
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Copyright © 2021 Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future, All rights reserved.

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