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The asteroid Bennu as seen from the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

On Dec. 3, the NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx arrived at its destination of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. During the next year, it will orbit the asteroid to search for the best places to land and scoop up samples before eventually returning them to Earth in 2023.

Why it matters: Analyzing Bennu may help scientists learn more about the asteroid's composition, which could lead to new discoveries about how life evolved in the universe.

But there's another reason researchers are interested in the contents of this space rock: They want to learn more about how they might have to, on short notice, divert, deflect or destroy an asteroid that's on a potentially devastating collision course with Earth.

The multi-institution research team has modeled a possible planetary defense mission against Bennu, based on the limited information they had about the small space object, according to Cathy Plesko, a research scientist in applied physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

  • They did this to help improve their modeling, not because they truly believe Bennu to be a threat to Earth, she adds.

The computer models they used, Plesko tells Axios, gave them a good guess at the shape and composition of the asteroid.

  • New data from the close encounter with Bennu can allow the team to refine their models.
  • Already there are some surprises, Plesko says, including the finding that the surface of Bennu is comprised of rubble tile with big boulders. The textured surface was not in the team's initial models and will require adjustments to be made in their models.

What's next: A basic task for scientists is to determine how uncertain their models are, just in case they're needed to save humanity from an extinction-level asteroid.

  • In all, there are 2 dozen groups of researchers working on this problem, with Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories all involved.
  • Plesko says planetary defense is a new field but has made progress in detecting potentially destructive asteroids, for example.

However, without a mission-ready spacecraft or plan, if we were to find an object on a collision course with Earth tomorrow, Plesko says, “We’d still be pretty hard-pressed to stop it from happening.”

Go deeper

House passes sweeping election and anti-corruption bill

Photo: Win McNamee via Getty Images

The House voted 220-210Wednesday to pass Democrats' expansive election and anti-corruption bill.

Why it matters: Expanding voting access has been a top priority for Democrats for years, but the House passage of the For the People Act (H.R. 1) comes as states across the country consider legislation to rollback voting access in the aftermath of former President Trump's loss.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

Photo: Stephen Maturen via Getty Images

The House voted 220 to 212 on Wednesday evening to pass a policing bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year led to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Why it matters: The legislation overhauls qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and outlaws racial profiling.

6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Republicans plan to exact pain before COVID relief vote

Sen. Ron Johnson. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republicans are demanding a full, 600-page bill reading — and painful, multi-hour "vote-a-rama" — as Democrats forge ahead with their plan to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Why it matters: The procedural war is aimed at forcing Democrats to defend several parts the GOP considers unnecessary and partisan. While the process won't substantially impact the final version of the mammoth bill, it'll provide plenty of ammunition for future campaign messaging.