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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

Michigan board certifies Biden's win

Poll workers count absentee ballots in Detroit, Michigan on Nov. 4. Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Michigan Board of State Canvassers certified the state's election results on Monday, making President-elect Joe Biden's win there official and granting him the state's 16 electoral votes.

Why it matters: Republican Party leaders had unsuccessfully appealed to delay the official certification, amid the Trump campaign's failed legal challenges in key swing states.

Biden to nominate Janet Yellen as Treasury secretary

Photo: Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden is preparing to nominate former Fed Chair Janet Yellen as his Treasury Secretary, four people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Yellen, 74, will bring instant economic celebrity to Biden’s team and, if confirmed, she will not only be the first female Treasury Secretary but also the first person to have held all three economic power positions in the federal government: the chair of Council of Economic Advisers, the chair of Federal Reserve and the Treasury Secretary.

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AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford on Monday reported promising efficacy data for their COVID-19 vaccine, which has less stringent storage requirements than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and may be distributed earlier in developing countries.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the state of vaccine and therapeutics manufacturing with Bob Nelsen, a successful biotech investor who on Monday launched Resilience, a giant new pharma production platform that he believes will prepare America for its next major health challenges.