NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made a surprising discovery while studying an asteroid name Bennu last year. It unexpectedly captured a black hole 30 000 light-years away from Earth, much to the researchers’ surprise.
Researchers at MIT and Harvard had attached a Regolith X-Ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) to the spacecraft. The REXIS is actually just a ‘shoebox-sized student instrument’ according to the NASA website.
The plan initially had been to conduct an ongoing sample-return mission to Bennu. It is largely a project which aimed to prepare ‘the next generation of scientists, engineers, and project managers in the development and operations of spaceflight hardware.’
The mission was launched in 2016 and reached the selected asteroid in December 2018. It then began 505 days of surface mapping from a distance of roughly 5km way from Bennu.
Bennu, which has a diameter of 490m, was specifically chosen because scientists believe that it contains organic molecules that could possibly reveal unknown facts about the origin of the Solar System.
Then in November 2019, REXIS captured an unusual and unexpected sight: X-rays radiating from a point on the edge of the asteroid.
The glowing object was identified as a ‘newly flaring black hole X-ray binary’.
“Our initial checks showed no previously cataloged object in that position in space,” said Branden Allen, the Harvard research scientist who made the discovery.
Japan’s MAXI telescope, situated onboard NASA’s International Space Station, had actually noticed the same object a week earlier.
But what was unique about the discovery made by REXIS was that it was the first such outburst to be captured from interplanetary space. The International Space Station, by comparison, is located in a low Earth orbit position.
The actual X-ray blasts can only be seen from space due to the fact that Earth’s protective atmosphere shields it from X-rays.
Bennu reportedly has a cumulative 1-in-2700 chance of making an impact with the Earth between the years 2175 and 2199