Weird, wild gravity of asteroid Bennu

ScienceDaily | 3/19/2019 | Staff
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The new findings are part of a suite of papers published today by the team behind NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission. And they come just three months after OSIRIS-REx first encountered Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018.

Since then, the spacecraft has completed a few dozen laps around the asteroid, which is about as tall as the Empire State Building, circling Bennu from a distance of about a mile. And those early circuits are giving scientists a whole new look at this mysterious rock, said CU Boulder's Daniel Scheeres, who leads the mission's radio science team.

Research - Nature - Astronomy - Example - Team

In research appearing in Nature Astronomy, for example, his team reports the mass of that asteroid: a respectable 73 billion kilograms.

But Scheeres and his colleagues are also working to develop a map of the asteroid's gravitational pull. Their findings suggest that Bennu exists in a delicate balance between two competing forces, the result of the asteroid's wild spin. Bennu completes a full revolution about once every four hours.

Scheeres - Forces - Role - Asteroid - Evolution

And, Scheeres said, those forces could play an important role in the asteroid's long-term evolution -- and potential demise.

"When you spin this guy up, you create a competition between the gravity that's holding you down and the centrifugal acceleration, which is trying to throw you off," said Scheeres, distinguished professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences who leads the mission's radio science team.

Forces - Scheeres - Colleagues - OSIRIS-REx - Instruments

To study those forces, Scheeres and his colleagues use OSIRIS-REx's navigational instruments to measure the minute tug that the asteroid exerts on the spacecraft.

And they dug up more than they expected. Based on the group's calculations, the region around Bennu's equator is trapped within a gravitational feature called a rotational Roche lobe -- something that scientists had not yet clearly observed on an asteroid.

Practice - Feature

In practice, that feature gets...
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