The delight of discovering an asteroid that spits

Nancy ShuteThese are wondrous times for space exploration. Just when you think exploring the cosmos couldn’t possibly get more fun, another discovery delivers a new “oh wow” moment.

Consider the asteroid Bennu. It’s an unprepossessing space rock that drew scientists’ curiosity because it is among the most pristine objects in our solar system, and it might provide clues to the origins of life. But checking out Bennu is no trip to Paris; it’s about 130 million kilometers from Earth. NASA launched its OSIRIS-REx probe to Bennu in 2016, and it didn’t arrive until last December. The spacecraft is currently orbiting its quarry in preparation for an attempt at gathering samples from the asteroid’s surface in 2020 and then toting them back to Earth. Estimated delivery date: September 24, 2023. Clearly, asteroid science is not a discipline for those with short attention spans.

So imagine scientists’ delight when OSIRIS-REx already had news to share: Bennu is squirting jets of dust into space. It’s an asteroid behavior no one had ever seen before. Astronomy writer Lisa Grossman learned all about Bennu’s surprise jets while attending the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March. She reports that the dusty fountains may be the work of volatile gases beneath Bennu’s surface. The presence of volatiles would suggest that the rock wandered into the inner solar system relatively recently. But astronomers still have a lot to figure out about Bennu’s history, and they couldn’t be happier.

In other surprising space rock news from the conference, astronomers analyzing the much-more-distant object dubbed Ultima Thule now think it’s an agglomeration of mini-worlds that stuck together in the early days of the solar system — as Grossman terms it, a “Frankenworld.” That’s just the latest unexpected news from this Kuiper Belt denizen. If you’re as space rock obsessed as we are, you may recall that the first fuzzy images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Ultima Thule on January 1, suggested that the rock looked like a bowling pin or a snowman spinning in space. More recent images reveal not a snowman, but instead two pancakes or hamburger patties glued end to end (SN: 3/16/19, p. 15). That has scientists scrambling to figure out what forces could create such an oddly shaped object.

We’ll be hearing more about Bennu, Ultima Thule and other residents of our solar system in the months to come. I’m particularly looking forward to news from the Parker Solar Probe, which is tightening its orbit around the sun. I’m the one who is going to have to be patient in this case, though that’s not an attribute typically associated with journalists. The spacecraft won’t make its closest encounter with the sun until 2024, before ending its mission the following year. But the probe will be reporting in, and we’ll be reporting, too, as it makes this historic journey (SN: 1/19/19, p. 7).

Open your Web browser or your trusty print magazine and join us for the adventure. We hope you’ll enjoy the journey as much as we do.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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