NASA is inviting the citizens of Earth to send our names to asteroid Bennu. Just fill out the brief form and your name will be etched on the “Messages to Bennu!” microchip that will hitch a ride aboard the OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer) space probe in 2016.
The mission’s purpose is to return the first pristine samples of carbon-rich material from the surface of a primitive asteroid. Primitive asteroids are dark asteroids in the outer part of the asteroid belt that contain carbon, clays and water little changed since their formation at the dawn of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
The probe, set to launch in September 2016, will rendezvous with Bennu two years later. Once in orbit, it will map and study the surface from a distance of between 3 and 0.4 miles (5 and 0.7 km) for 505 days. All the while your name will be there as a silent observer.
At some point during its stay, the spacecraft will extend the SAM or Sample Acquisition Mechanism down to the surface and collect at least 2.1 ounces (60 grams) of pristine material. The sample will be returned to Earth in a capsule that will float down by parachute over the Utah desert in September 2023.
With a girth of about 1,600 feet (0.5 km) Bennu’s a larger than average Earth-approaching asteroid. It orbits around the sun every 436 days (1.2 years) and passes close to the Earth every six years.
During those close approaches, Bennu comes within 278,867 miles (448,794 km) of our blue orb. Calculation of its future orbits indicate that Bennu has one of the highest impact probabilities in the next few centuries of any known asteroid. Currently there’s a 1 in 1800 chance of impact with Earth on September 24, 2182.
Not only do scientists need to study the asteroid up close to gain a deeper understanding of the origin and evolution of asteroids and planets, but also to precisely determine its orbit and composition. In particular, we need to know how solar heating affects Bennu’s orbit.
Your name will be etched on two microchips – one on the spacecraft, which will remain in orbit about the sun for years and years, and one that will come home in the sample return capsule in 2023.
“It is exciting to consider the possibility that some of the people who
register to send their names to Bennu could one day be a part of the team
that analyzes the samples from the asteroid 10 years from now,” said Jason
Dworkin, mission project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.