Tag Archives: asteroids

Hayabusa-2 aborts close-in drop of visual marker on Ryugu

Japan’s asteroid probe Hayabusa-2 automatically aborted a planned drop of a visual markee on the asteroid Ryugu at the site where the probe created a crater in April.

Thursday’s mission was to observe the targeted area in detail and drop a marker from an altitude of 10 meters. But officials say the probe automatically suspended the operation after it descended to about 50 meters above the surface. It then headed toward its standby position of 20 kilometers above Ryugu. Hayabusa2 is designed to automatically abort its landing if it detected any irregularity. The agency is looking into the cause of the arrested descent.

Once the marker is eventually in place, they will use it for guidance during a a second touchdown to grab further samples, this time hopefully of material churned up by the explosion that created the crater.


Ten secondary craters produced on Ryugu by Hayabusa-2’s manmade impact

The Hayabusa-2 science team has announced that it has found ten additional secondary craters produced from ejecta from the manmade impact the spacecraft created on Ryugu on April 5.

The secondary craters appear to be about a yard across each, while the initial crater is about thirty feet wide with a depth of six to ten feet.


The temperature on Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team have released a short movie, compiled from data obtained in November 2018 as the spacecraft was first approaching the asteroid Bennu, that shows the dayside surface temperature and how it changes as the asteroid rotates.

I have embedded the movie below the fold.

Within a distance of only about 850 feet the temperature rises more than 270 degrees, from -99.67 °F to 170.33 °F. This change also occurs at every spot as the asteroid rotates. At dawn it will be that cold, and by noon it will be that hot.
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Bennu from two miles

Bennu from two miles
Click for full image.

In late March OSIRIS-REx completed its fourth fly-by of the asteroid Bennu. The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken when the spacecraft was only 2.1 miles above the surface. If you were standing among these large boulders, we could easily see you.

The image itself shows the asteroid’s southern limb, and thus the shadows are accentuated. This makes it easier to see surface details. Though it is clear once again that Bennu is a pile of boulders and rocks cemented together and floating in space, the photograph also shows that it also has areas where the material is either much larger or fused together more solidly, as shown by the more massive sections in the left center of this picture. We might be looking a very large boulders peeking up from below the surface, or possibly this is the hint of some real bedrock.

The OSIRIS-REx team is continuing the spacecraft’s survey phase, gathering high resolution images in order to compile a detailed map of the surface, prior to planning the touch-and-go sample grab.


Lunar eclipse meteorite hit the Moon at almost 38,000 mph

By analyzing the data obtained of the meteorite impact that hit the Moon during the January 21 lunar eclipse, astronomers now estimate it crashed into the surface at almost 38,000 miles per hour and would have produced a crater about 50 feet across.

They also estimate that the meteorite itself had a mass of about 100 pounds with a diameter of between one to two feet.

The new crater itself has not yet been spotted, and probably can only be photographed with the high resolution camera on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). I expect the LRO science team has already scheduled observations for this location. It will be interesting to see if the actual crater corresponds to the estimates of these astronomers.


The new man-made crater on Ryugu

Man-made crater on Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science team has released before and after images of the spot on Ryugu where the spacecraft’s explosive projectile caused the creation of a small crater.

On the left above is the before, with the new crater indicated by the circle on the right. Note the rocks in both pictures, some now partly covered with debris. They did not give a scale, but this is a very small area, probably less than a few feet across.

They now need to analyze whether they can safely touchdown at this spot and grab a sample.


Hayabusa-2 confirms man-made crater on Ryugu

In a planned fly-over of Ryugu yesterday Hayabusa-2 took its first direct images of the location where it had fired an explosive projectile and thus confirmed the creation of a man-made crater by that projectile.

“The asteroid’s terrain has clearly been altered,” said Yuichi Tsuda, an associate professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Hayabusa2, which began its descent toward the asteroid Wednesday afternoon, captured images of its surface to determine the existence of the crater after it successfully shot a metal projectile at Ryugu on April 5 in an experiment deemed the first of its kind.

According to the JAXA, the probe photographed the area hit by the projectile from a distance of 1.7 km. The agency compared images of the asteroid’s surface before and after the shooting of the projectile to determine the presence of a man-made crater.

They have not yet released any of these images. They will use them however for planning a touchdown and sample grab within this crater in next few months.


Did an interstellar meteor hit the Earth in 2014?

By analyzing the speed in which it traveled through the atmosphere, astronomers propose that a meteor that hit the ground in 2014 was probably an interstellar object.

The scientists analyzed the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies’ catalog of meteor events detected by U.S. government sensors. They focused on the fastest meteors, because a high speed suggests a meteor is potentially not gravitationally bound to the sun and thus may originate from outside the solar system.

The researchers identified a meteor about 3 feet (0.9 meters) wide that was detected on Jan. 8, 2014, at an altitude of 11.6 miles (18.7 kilometers) over a point near Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in the South Pacific. Its high speed of about 134,200 mph (216,000 km/h) and its trajectory suggested it came from outside the solar system, the scientists said. “We can use the atmosphere of the Earth as the detector for these meteors, which are too small to otherwise see,” Loeb told Space.com.

The meteor’s velocity suggested it received a gravitational boost during its journey, perhaps from the deep interior of a planetary system, or a star in the thick disk of the Milky Way.

To put it mildly, there are a lot of uncertainties about this conclusion. Nonetheless, their approach and hypothesis is very intriguing, and seems logical.


April 25 set for Hayabusa-2’s first observations of artificial crater

The Hayabusa-2’s science team has scheduled their first observations of the artificial crater the spacecraft made on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu for April 25.

The probe will observe the crater, which was generated during an impact experiment on April 5, from a height of 1.7 kilometers. JAXA will collate the data with photographs of the surface taken near the impact point to measure the size and location of the crater. It will also examine the dispersion of rocks and judge whether Hayabusa2 can land to take samples.

This is only their first assessment. Once they feel comfortable about getting closer, they will then plan the spacecraft’s second touchdown and sample collection, this time hopefully from within that crater.


Bennu’s cobbled equatorial ridge

Bennu as seen by OSIRIS-REx
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a new close-up image of Bennu, this time showing the asteroid’s equatorial ridge. The image on the right is that photograph, reduced to post here.

When the image was taken, the spacecraft was positioned over Bennu’s northern hemisphere, looking southward over the asteroid’s equatorial bulge. The field of view shown is 168 ft (51.2 m) wide. For scale, the bright, rectangular rock above the dark region is 8 ft (2.4 m) wide, about the size of a long bed on a pickup truck

Like Ryugu, the scientists for OSIRIS-REx are going to be challenged in finding a location smooth enough for their touchdown sample grab. That surface reminds me of some avalanche scree slopes I’ve hike across, where you’ve got nothing but rough rocks to walk on.


OSIRIS-REx maps Bennu by laser

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a short animation showing a topographical global map of the asteroid Bennu, created by the spacecraft’s laser altimeter, dubbed OLA.

From Feb. 12 through 17, OLA made more than 11 million measurements of the distance between OSIRIS-REx and Bennu’s surface as the spacecraft flew less than 1.2 miles (2 km) above the surface – the closest orbit ever achieved by spacecraft. OLA obtained these measurements by firing laser pulses at Bennu and measuring the amount of time it takes for the light to bounce off the asteroid’s surface and return to the instrument. That time measurement is then translated into altitude data. Using this data, the OLA team created the 3-D model of Bennu’s surface.


Hayabusa-2’s successfully bombs Ryugu

impact on Ryugu

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe yesterday successfully impacted an explosive charge on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu, creating a crater for observing the interior geology.

The image to the right was taken by a camera that has separated from Hayabusa-2 and stayed closer to the impact. It shows material flying off the asteroid’s surface, at the horizon line.

Hayabusa-2 — which moved to the other side of the asteroid to stay clear of any ejecta — will next arc around and get close to this impact site to study it. They first need to make sure the ejecta has cleared.


Global map of Bennu

Global map of Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a global map of Bennu, compiled from images taken in December.

The map is above. It was released with no commentary. In comparing it with this global map of Ryugu, created by the Japanese probe Hayabusa-2, I am struck by how much both asteroids resemble each other.

This fact is in many ways a first. Since the first planetary probes left Earth in the 1960s the one reliable expectation that has consistently proven true is that no planetary object, be it planet, dwarf planet, moon, asteroid, or comet, was going to resemble any other planetary object. Each has been entirely unique, and unique in very startling and obvious ways.

Ryugu and Bennu represent the first planetary objects that actually look pretty much the same. Scientist will of course be able to note differences, but overall these objects clearly belong to a specific class of asteroids, which in this case is the rubble pile.

In a sense, this similarity marks a significant advancement in our knowledge. Up until now, we had observed so few objects that our knowledge base wasn’t large enough to start seeing patterns within our general classifications of planet, asteroid, or comets. That is now finally changing.


Hayabusa-2 to take close look at planned explosive impact point on Ryugu

Flight plan for Hayabusa-2's rehearsal

Beginning today Hayabusa-2 will do a two-day close approach of Ryugu in order to get good baseline images of the point on the surface where they will fire an explosive projectile in the first week in April. As they note:

Currently, we have scheduled the small carry-on impactor operation (SCI operation) for the first week in April. The purpose of the SCI operation is to create a crater on the surface of Ryugu, and it is important to be able to compare the asteroid surface before and after the SCI operation.

The graph on the right shows the flight plan. I expect they will do the same for this maneuver as they have done with previous close approaches, and provide real-time images as they happen.


Confirmed: Ryugu is a rubble pile

Close-up of Ryugu's surface
Click for source paper [pdf].

At a special session today dedicated to results from the Hayabusa-2 probe to the asteroid Ryugu at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, scientists confirmed from numerous data and images that the asteroid has a low density, is covered with boulders and pebbles, is very porous, and is thus a rubble pile that is held together by gravity, barely.

From their lead presentation [pdf]:

The estimated total porosity is even higher than that of rubble-pile asteroid Itokawa (44 ± 4%), indicating that asteroid Ryugu is also a rubble pile. This is consistent with a theory arguing that all Solar System bodies with diameter of ~1 km should be rubble piles and might have formed from reaccumulation of fragments generated by catastrophic disruption events of ~100-km sized parent bodies.

They also posit that the asteroid’s diamond shape is caused by the asteroid’s 3.5 hour rotation, which causes its weak rubble pile structure to be easily pulled to the equator, and then outward.

Another paper [pdf] did crater counts, and found that there are fewer large craters than one would expect.

The density of large craters (D>100 m) on Ryugu is lower than the empirical saturation level and its slope is steeper than that of the saturated distribution, suggesting that craters larger than 100 m are not saturated and the size distribution reflects the crater production function. However, craters smaller than 100 m are significantly under-saturated, suggesting that some crater erasure processes such as seismic shaking and armoring effect are active on the Ryugu surface. Based on cratering chronology model for the main belt, the surface age of Ryugu is estimated to be 5–200 [million years] from the size–frequency distribution of craters larger than 100 m.

In other words, this rubble pile is constantly being shaken by its rotation and time and later impacts, which steadily rewrites the surface.

If this asteroid was headed to Earth, I imagine the only safe solution to prevent disaster would be to slowly and gently deflect it so it only flies past. To do this will require an arrival far in advance of the schedule impact, to give time for the deflection process to work.


A rock on Bennu

A rock on Bennu
Click for full image (which is rotated 180 degrees).

Cool image time! The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a close-up image of the surface of the asteroid Bennu. The image on the right is a cropped and rotated section of that image, focusing on the image’s star, its largest rock.

The boulders on Bennu’s surface sport a variety of surface textures, from smooth, to hummocky, striated, and crumbly “cauliflower” in nature. The large boulder in the image center is ~92 ft (~28 m) across and has a somewhat round shape, though many smaller boulders surrounding it are very angular. Some of these appear to be fragments that may have disaggregated from the central boulder and display layering effects that may reflect some of the properties of their mineral composition. Other boulders show signs of surface exfoliation and fractures that may have been caused by impacts, mechanical weathering, and other forms of rock breakdown active on Bennu’s surface.

The image was taken from less than a mile away, and shows a spot near the asteroid’s south pole.

Why the larger boulder has a rounded look, but the pebbles around it are jagged, is a puzzle.

The science team also revealed today that they have detected plumes of particles being released from the asteroid’s surface. They have also found Bennu to present them with the same problem faced by the Hayabusa-2 team at Ryugu: The asteroid is far rougher than expected.

The higher-than-expected density of boulders means that the mission’s plans for sample collection, also known as Touch-and-Go (TAG), need to be adjusted. The original mission design was based on a sample site that is hazard-free, with an 82-foot (25-meter) radius. However, because of the unexpectedly rugged terrain, the team hasn’t been able to identify a site of that size on Bennu. Instead, it has begun to identify candidate sites that are much smaller in radius.


Hayabusa-2 schedules explosion on Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science team has scheduled April 5 for when it will use the spacecraft to fire an explosive device into Ryugu to create a crater and debris cloud.

The probe is scheduled to detach a device loaded with explosives some 500 meters away from Ryugu. The device will set off the explosives using a timer some 40 minutes later and launch a copper “impactor” weighing about 2 kilograms into the asteroid’s surface.

The target point is several hundreds of meters away from where the space probe first touched down. The mission will require the spacecraft to move quickly to the other side of the asteroid so it won’t get hit by flying shards from the blast. A detached camera will shoot the moment of impact.

JAXA will analyze the size and shape of the crater, and how rocks fly off in a bid to collect underground samples for possible clues to the origin of the solar system.

This is different than the touchdown last month, as the spacecraft itself will not get close to the asteroid.


A pond on Bennu

Pond on Bennu
Click for full resolution.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released new high resolution images of one particular area on Bennu’s northern hemisphere. The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows what they label a “pond of regolith,” seen as the relatively smooth area in the upper left.

This is not literally a pond, but instead is a low-lying spot where smaller particles have settled over time, producing a flattish area that looks, and in some ways, resembles a pond or puddle, only in this case the material isn’t water but fine-grained dust or pebbles.

On March 19 the science team will be presenting their initial results at a special session at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. That same day they will hold a press conference summarizing the most interesting aspects of those results. Stay tuned.


New research detects increase in Bennu’s rotation

New research using ground-based observations has detected a slight increase over time in the daily rotation of the asteroid Bennu.

The new research finds the asteroid’s rotation is speeding up by about 1 second per century. In other words, Bennu’s rotation period is getting shorter by about 1 second every 100 years.

While the increase in rotation might not seem like much, over a long period of time it can translate into dramatic changes in the space rock. As the asteroid spins faster and faster over millions of years, it could lose pieces of itself or blow itself apart, according to the study’s authors.

…The change in Bennu’s rotation could be due to a change in its shape. Similar to how ice skaters speed up as they pull in their arms, an asteroid could speed up as it loses material.

Nolan and his co-authors suggest the reason for the increase in Bennu’s rotation is more likely due to a phenomenon known the YORP effect. Sunlight hitting the asteroid is reflected back into space. The change in the direction of the light coming in and going out pushes on the asteroid and can cause it to spin faster or slower, depending on its shape and rotation.

Truth is, this is not a very significant finding. Asteroids don’t weight much, and thus have very weak gravitational fields. It is therefore very easy to change their orbit and rotation, as well as add or subject material from them.

In this sense, the conclusion above is likely incorrect. What they have found is that the asteroid’s rotation increased at a pace of about 1 second per century, during their study period. Their data only covers the period from 1999 to 2005. Bennu could easily slowed its rotation, or increased it even more, during other times.


Hayabusa-2 to get close to Ryugu again to observe next touchdown point

Hayabusa-2’s engineering team has decided it will on March 8 do a close approach to within 75 feet of its next planned touchdown target site in order to inspect it.

The DO-S01 operation schedule is shown in Figure 2. The spacecraft will begin descending on March 7 at 13:27 (JST, onboard time: times below are stated similarly) at a speed of 0.4m/s. The speed will then be reduced to 0.1 m/s around 23:47 on the same day. Continuing descent at this rate, we will reach our lowest altitude at around 12:22 on March 8 and then immediately begin to rise. The altitude of this lowest point will be about 23m. Please note that the times stated here are the planned values but the actual operation times may differ.

As before, they will upload navigation images as this approach is happening.


Video from Hayabusa-2’s touchdown

The Hayabusa-2 science team has released a video taken of the spacecraft’s quick touchdown and sample grab on the asteroid Ryugu.

I have embedded the video below the fold. It not only shows the incredible rockiness of Ryugu’s surface, with the spacecraft barely missing a large rock as it came down, it also clearly shows the resulting debris cloud and surface changes after touchdown and the firing of Hayabusa-2’s projectile into the surface to throw up material that the spacecdraft could catch. You can actually see pebbles flying about below and around the spacecraft as it quickly retreats.

The Hayabusa-2 science team plans another touchdown in the next few months, this time using a different technique to disturb the surface and grab the resulting ejecta.
» Read more


New Horizons data suggests the Kuiper Belt is emptier that previously believed

The uncertainty of science: An analysis of data from New Horizons now suggests a paucity of small objects in the Kuiper Belt.

Using New Horizons data from the Pluto-Charon flyby in 2015, a Southwest Research Institute-led team of scientists have indirectly discovered a distinct and surprising lack of very small objects in the Kuiper Belt. The evidence for the paucity of small Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) comes from New Horizons imaging that revealed a dearth of small craters on Pluto’s largest satellite, Charon, indicating that impactors from 300 feet to 1 mile (91 meters to 1.6 km) in diameter must also be rare.

I therefore wonder how the objects we do find there formed. The volume of space in the Kuiper Belt is gigantic, and if the larger bodies found so far are the bulk of the objects there, what did they coalesce from? Moreover, it seems unlikely that the few large objects we have found there would have been able to clear the region out of small objects.

Overall, this is a fundamental mystery tied directly to how the solar system formed, and illustrates how little we know about that process.


Ceres has too much water!

The uncertainty of science: In a paper released today, scientists puzzle over the amount of water they have detected evaporating from the dwarf planet Ceres, finding that observations by Dawn of its surface do not provide enough water sources to explain the amount of water in its thin atmosphere.

From the abstract:

The dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, is known to contain large amounts of water ice, and water vapor was detected around it. Possible sources of the water are surface exposure of ice through impacts and subsequent sublimation when heated by sunlight, or volcanic activity. It turns out that with either process it is difficult to create sufficient water vapor to explain the observations. This means that the geological processes on Ceres are not fully understood.

They propose several possible explanations for the discrepancy. Either the measurements of evaporation are wrong, or they have not fully mapped the surface water sources on Ceres. Either or both are certainly possible, as there are great uncertainties here.

To me, the most interesting quote from their paper however is the amount of water discovered. Besides finding water on the surface at nine locations “localized on crater floors or slopes, and generally in or close to shadows,” they also found a lot of water under the surface.

The gamma ray and neutron detector on Dawn discovered a global ice‐rich layer in the subsurface of Ceres, at a depth of ~1 m in equatorial regions and much closer to the surface in polar regions. The estimated abundance of ice in this layer is ~10%. … Evidence for ice on depth scales of a few kilometers is [also] reported by Sizemore et al. (2018). From the analysis of geomorphological features, they find that the distribution of ice is heterogeneous on scales of 1 km to hundreds of kilometers.

In other words, Ceres has a lot of water below the surface, even if the evaporation rate observed by Dawn does not at present match the amount of water vapor observed surrounding Ceres.


Close-up of Bennu’s north pole

Bennu's north pole
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a very high resolution image taken of Bennu’s north pole region. To the right is the most interesting part of that image, cropped by me to show here.

This image shows a region near asteroid Bennu’s north pole on the terminator line between the asteroid’s day and night sides. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s MapCam camera obtained the image on Feb. 20 while in orbit around the asteroid from a distance of 1.1 miles (1.8 km). At this distance, each pixel covers approximately 4.5 inches (12 cm) of Bennu’s surface. The largest boulder, located slightly left of the center, measures around 52 feet (16 meters) across, which, for scale, is the length of the trailer on a semi-truck.

In other words, if this was a truck stop along an interstate highway, you could see the driver getting out of that semi to head inside for dinner.

The spacecraft right now is not doing much science work. They are in what they call the Orbital A phase of the mission, where they are in a very low orbit along the terminator line between night and day — generally a mile above the surface — and are using this orbit to give the engineering team practice maneuvering at such an orbit while they transition from using the stars to navigate to using landmarks on the surface.


Hayabusa-2 touchdown images released

Surface of Ryugu 1 minute after touchdown

The Hayabusa-2 science team today released images taken during its quick touchdown on the asteroid Ryugu last week.

The image to the right was taken:

roughly 1 minute after touchdown at an estimated altitude of about 25m (error is a few meter) [80 feet]. The color of the region beneath the spacecraft’s shadow differs from the surroundings and has been discolored by the touchdown. At the moment, the reason for the discoloration is unknown but it may be due to the grit that was blown upwards by the spacecraft thrusters or bullet (projectile).

The image proves that everything on Hayabusa-2 worked as planned, and it almost certainly captured some of that grit.

They are going to do at least two more touchdowns before they have Hayabusa-2 leave Ryugu and head back to Earth.


New high resolution images of Ultima Thule

Highest resolution image of Ultima Thule
Click for full resolution image.

The New Horizons team has released new high resolution images of Ultima Thule, taken during its fly-by on January 1, 2019.

These new images of Ultima Thule – obtained by the telephoto Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) just 6½ minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to the object (officially named 2014 MU69) at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1 – offer a resolution of about 110 feet (33 meters) per pixel.

…The higher resolution brings out a many surface features that weren’t readily apparent in earlier images. Among them are several bright, enigmatic, roughly circular patches of terrain. In addition, many small, dark pits near the terminator (the boundary between the sunlit and dark sides of the body) are better resolved. “Whether these features are craters produced by impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits, or something entirely different, is being debated in our science team,” said John Spencer, deputy project scientist from SwRI.

Available at the link above is a three-second long movie they created from these images, showing Ultima Thule as it zips across the camera’s view.


Astronomer discovers newest farthest solar system object

Worlds without end: An astronomer leading a team looking for a large planet beyond Pluto has broken their own record and found a new solar system object that is the farthest known from the Sun.

That’s when he saw it, a faint object at a distance 140 times farther from the sun than Earth — the farthest solar system object yet known, some 3.5 times more distant than Pluto. The object, if confirmed, would break his team’s own discovery, announced in December, of a dwarf planet 120 times farther out than Earth, which they nicknamed “Farout.” For now, they are jokingly calling the new object “FarFarOut”. “This is hot off the presses,” he said during his rescheduled talk on 21 February.

I like the names for both.


Confirmed: Hayabusa-2 grabbed got a sample of Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science team has confirmed that in the spacecraft’s quick touchdown on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu today it successfully snagged an asteroid sample.

Mission team members announced at about 6:30 p.m. EST (2330 GMT) today that the order to fire the bullet had been issued, and that Hayabusa2 had moved away from Ryugu as planned. But it took a few more hours for them to confirm that the bullet had indeed fired, and that sample collection occurred.

…The collected samples are key to this objective: The Ryugu material will come down to Earth in a special return capsule in December 2020. Scientists in labs around the world can then scrutinize the stuff with far more advanced equipment than the Hayabusa2 team could pack onto a single spacecraft.

The sample bounty will include more than just the material Hayabusa2 collected today. The mothership is expected to grab two more samples in the coming weeks and months. The second sampling sortie will unfold much like today’s did, but the third will be dramatically different: Hayabusa2 will fire a copper projectile into Ryugu, wait a bit for the dust to clear, and then swoop in to grab material from the newly created crater. This formerly subsurface stuff will be pristine, unaffected by weathering from deep-space radiation.

More thrills to come, obviously.

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