The results of the OSIRIS-REx probe have now started to be made public, and while this probe was launched to answer questions about carbonaceous asteroids, and while some information has been obtained that is most certainly interesting, what it has mainly done, in my opinion, is to raise more questions. As is often the case with scientific experiments and observations.
Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid with a semimajor axis of about 1.26 AU, where 1 AU is the Earth-Sun distance. Its eccentricity is 0.2, which means it is Earth-crossing and could collide with Earth. According to Wikipedia, it has a 1 in 2700 chance of impacting Earth between 2175 – 2199. I guess I shall never know, but it would be a threat. It has a diameter of approximately 500 meters, and a mass of somewhere in the vicinity of 7 x 10^10 kg, which means an impact would be extremely damaging near where it struck, but it would not be an extinction event. (The Chicxulub impactor would have been between five to seven orders of magnitude bigger.) So, what do we know about it?
It is described as a rubble pile, although what that means varies in terms of who says it. It is generally not considered to be an original accretion, and it is usually assumed to have formed inside a much larger planetoid which provided heat and pressure to form more complex minerals. Exactly why they are so sure of this is a puzzle to me, because we do not know what the minerals are, and how they are bound into the asteroid. Carbonaceous asteroids usually are found in the outer asteroid belt, and the assumption is this was dislodged inwards as a result of the collision that formed it. Standard theory assumes there were such collisions, but it also assumes such collisions led to planetary formation, and the rather awkward fact that there are no planets in the asteroid belt tends to be overlooked. These collisions are doing a lot of work, first making protoplanets then planets, and second, smashing up protoplanets to make asteroids, with no explanation why two different results arise other than “we need two different results”. Note that the collision velocities in the asteroid belt would be much milder than for the rocky planets, so smashing is more likely the closer to the star. Its relevance to planetary formation may be low since it did not form a planet, and there are no planets that have compositions that could realistically be considered to have come from such a chemical composition.
It is often said that Earth was bombarded with carbonaceous chondrites early on, and that is where the reduced carbon and nitrogen came from to sustain life, as well as the amino acids and nucleobases used to create life. Additionally, it is asserted that the iron and a number of other metals that dissolve in iron that we have on the surface must have come from asteroids, the reason being that in the early formation of Earth, the whole was a mass of boiling silicates in which such metals would dissolve in iron and go to the core. That we have them means something else must have brought them later. This shows one of the major faults of science, in my opinion. Rather than take the observation as a reason to go back and question whether the boiling silicates might be wrong, they introduce a further variable. Unfortunately, this “late veneer” is misleading because the advocates have refused to accept that we have fragments of asteroids as meteorites. Their isotopes show they could only have contributed the right amount of metals, etc, if they were emulsified in all of Earth’s silicates. But wait. Why would these be emulsified and not go to the core while the original metals were not emulsified and did go to the core?
These asteroids are also believed by many to be the origin of life. They have very small amounts of amino acids and nucleobases, but they have a much wider range of amino acids than are used by our life. If they were the source, why did we not use them? Even more convincing, the nitrogen in the meteorite fragments has more 15N than Earth’s nitrogen. Ours is of solar composition; the asteroids apparently processed it. There is no way to reduce the level of heavy isotopes so these asteroids cannot be the source.
Now, what does a rubble pile conjure up in your mind? I originally considered it to be, well, a pile of rubble, loosely adhering, but Bennu cannot be that. First, consider the escape velocity, which is more than 20 cm/sec in the polar regions but reduces down to 10 cm/sec at the equator, due to the centrifugal force of its rotation. That is not much, and anything loose would be lost in any impact. Yet the surface is littered with boulders, three more than 40 m long. Any significant shock would seemingly dislodge such boulders, especially smaller ones, but there they are, some half buried. There are also impact craters, some up to 150 meters in diameter. Whatever hit it to create that and excavate a hole 150 m in diameter must have delivered a shock wave that should impart more than 10 cm s−1 to a loosely lying boulder, although there is one possible exception, which is when the whole structure was sufficiently flexible to give without fragmenting and absorb the energy by converting it to heat while adding to the kinetic energy of the whole.
Which brings us back to the rubble pile. Bennu’s relative density is 1.19, so if placed in water it would not float, but it would not sink very quickly either. For comparison, it is less than half that of granite and about a third of many basalts. CI asteroidal material has a bulk density of 1.57, while CM asteroidal material has a bulk density of 2.2. Accordingly, it is concluded that Bennu has a lot of voids in it, which is where the concept of the rubble pile comes to bear. On the other hand, there is considerable stiffness, so something is restricting movement.
So what do we not know about this asteroid? First, we have only a modest idea of what it is made of, although a sample return might be possible. It may well be made entirely of large boulders plus the obvious voids put together with something sticking the boulders together, but what is the something? If made of boulders, what are the boulders made of? It never got hot enough out there to melt silicates, so whatever they are must b held together by some agent, but what? How resilient is that something, and how many times can it be used before it fails? This is important in case we decide it would be desirable to alter its orbit to avoid a collision with Earth. What holds the boulders together? This is important if we want to know how planets form, and whether such an asteroid will be useful in any way. (If, for example, we were to build a giant space station, the nitrogen, organic material and water in such an asteroid would be invaluable.) More to do to unravel this mystery.