The asteroid 101955 Bennu has a non-zero chance of hitting Earth sometime in the next century. Professor Beth Ellen Clark Joseph is leading a team that will figure out how worried future earthlings should be.

"... It may represent an unsampled meteorite type ... that will tell us something new about the early solar system."

As the NASA Mission Asteroid Scientist for the spacecraft mission OSIRIS-REx, Beth will manage three experiments during proximity operations at Bennu: spectral analysis, visual color imaging analysis, and thermal analysis. That last one is key.

“We’ll analyze the changes in temperature with time, and that’s going to tell us the thermal inertia of the surface—how quickly or slowly the surface cools off,” Beth says. “This, in turn, will help us constrain how the thermophysical properties of Bennu affect the small forces that can change its orbit over time.”

Aside from finding out if we’ll have to save Earth and humanity from a giant rock hurtling through space, the mission has another goal: to explore the origins of our solar system, and possibly, the origins of life.  

“Our hope is that because this asteroid seems to be incredibly dark and carbon-rich, it may represent an unsampled meteorite type, one that may be rich in organic compounds—and that will tell us something new about the early solar system,” says Beth.