Tag Archives: asteroids

A gravel pile floating in space that might hit the Earth

flat rock near Osprey
Click for full image.

Come October the probe OSIRIS-REx will attempt a quick touchdown on the asteroid Bennu to grab some tiny particles, all smaller than 0.8 inches across.

Bennu is what scientists have described as a “rubble-pile” asteroid. They use that name because it is simply a conglomeration of a lot of rocks, pebbles, boulders, and stones, all jagged and of all sizes. The overall gravity has never been strong enough to squeeze them together, at least as far as we can see, and so they are piled up loosely across the asteroid’s surface wherever we look.

I think a better name for this asteroid would a floating gravel pile, since the material on it, as clearly shown in the image to the right (reduced and rotated to post here), more resembles the tailings one finds at a mine or quarry. This photo was taken by OSIRIS-REx on May 26, 2020 during its first dress rehearsal over its back-up touch-and-go sample grab site, Osprey. As the release caption notes,

The field of view is 12 ft (3.8 m). For reference, the bright rock [near] the tip of the boulder is 1 ft (0.3 m) across, which is about the size of a loaf of bread.

I have rotated the image 90 degrees so that east is up, because the full mosaic of the entire Osprey landing site, shown below, is oriented that way, and by rotating it to match it is easier to locate this image within it.
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OSIRIS-REx spots sun-caused erosion on Bennu

Rock on Bennu showing exfoliation
Click for full figure.

An analysis of images taken by OSIRIS-REx of the asteroid Bennu has allowed scientists to identify places where the changing temperatures from day to night has caused the surfaces of rocks to flake away, a process geologists label exfoliation.

The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is from figure 1 in the paper. The yellow arrow points to a typical example of exfoliation, which is a process you can see on many rocks here on Earth.

Rocks expand when sunlight heats them during the day and contract as they cool down at night, causing stress that forms cracks that grow slowly over time. Scientists have thought for a while that thermal fracturing could be an important weathering process on airless objects like asteroids because many experience extreme temperature differences between day and night, compounding the stress. For example, daytime highs on Bennu can reach almost 127 degrees Celsius or about 260 degrees Fahrenheit, and nighttime lows plummet to about minus 73 degrees Celsius or nearly minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. However, many of the telltale features of thermal fracturing are small, and before OSIRIS-REx got close to Bennu, the high-resolution imagery required to confirm thermal fracturing on asteroids didn’t exist.

The mission team found features consistent with thermal fracturing using the spacecraft’s OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS), which can see features on Bennu smaller than one centimeter (almost 0.4 inches). It found evidence of exfoliation, where thermal fracturing likely caused small, thin layers (1 – 10 centimeters) to flake off of boulder surfaces. The spacecraft also produced images of cracks running through boulders in a north-south direction, along the line of stress that would be produced by thermal fracturing on Bennu.

The typical erosion processes that can cause exfoliation (weather, gravity) are not possible on tiny Bennu, so the solution appears to rest with sunlight and sunlight alone.

This is not really a surprising result, but it is the first time it has been documented by data.


Bennu’s forbidding gravelly surface

Gravelly Osprey landing site on Bennu
Click for a higher resolution version.

On May 26 the OSIRIS-REx science team completed their first rehearsal and close approach to their back-up sample-grab-and-go site on Bennu, dubbed Osprey, getting as close as 820 feet. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows that sample site within the white box. According to the image caption, the “long, light-colored boulder to the left of the dark patch, named Strix Saxum, is 17 ft (5.2 m) in length.” Note also that they have rotated the image so that east is at the top in order to make it more easily viewed.

This particular spot in this crater is actually a revision from their first choice from early in 2019, which originally was to the right and below the dark patch in the center of the crater. After six months of study, they decided instead on the present target area above the dark patch, because it seemed safer with the most sampleable material.

So how safe is this new location? Let’s take a closer look.
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That Jupiter Trojan comet-like asteroid was neither an asteroid nor a Trojan

Astronomers have now found that the asteroid that had suddenly become active, like a comet, and they had thought was part of the asteroids in Jupiter orbit called Trojans, was neither an asteroid nor a Trojan.

Instead, it is an actual comet captured in a strange unstable orbit around Jupiter.

[W]hen amateur astronomer Sam Deen used software on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s solar-system dynamics website to calculate the object’s orbit, he found P/2019 LD2 recently had a close encounter with Jupiter that left its orbit unstable. The model showed that the comet had likely been a Centaur, part of a family of outer solar system asteroids, with an orbit reaching out to Saturn. Then, on February 17, 2017, it passed about 14 million kilometers from Jupiter, an encounter that sent the comet on a wild ride and inserted it into an odd Jupiter-like orbit.

Yet although the swing past Jupiter put P/2019 LD2 into a Jupiter-like orbit, it didn’t move it near to one of the two Lagrange points where the combination of gravitational forces from Jupiter and the Sun hold Trojan asteroids. Instead of being 60° — one-sixth of the giant planet’s orbit — from Jupiter, P/2019 LD2 is only 21° ahead of Jupiter.

The orbit is unstable. It will bring the comet to within 3 million miles of Jupiter in 2063, but beyond that predictions are impossible. The exact closeness of that approach cannot be predicted with much precision, partly because of the chaotic nature of the orbit, and partly because of the random orbital changes that can occur because the comet is venting.


OSIRIS-REx completes close fly-over of backup sample grab site

The OSIRIS-REx science team has completed its closest fly-over of its backup sample grab location on the asteroid Bennu, getting to within about 820 feet.

The goal was to get better imagery and science data of the site, both for research and also should the planned October 20th sample-grab-and-go touchdown at the primary site, Nightingale, should fail.


A Jupiter Trojan asteroid spouts a tail

The ATLAS telescope has discovered the first Jupiter Trojan asteroid to spout a tail like a comet.

Early in June 2019, ATLAS reported what seemed to be a faint asteroid near the orbit of Jupiter. The Minor Planet Center designated the new discovery as 2019 LD2. Inspection of ATLAS images taken on June 10 by collaborators Alan Fitzsimmons and David Young at Queen’s University Belfast revealed its probable cometary nature. Follow-up observations by the University of Hawaiʻi’s J.D. Armstrong and his student Sidney Moss on June 11 and 13 using the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) global telescope network confirmed the cometary nature of this body.

Later, in July 2019, new ATLAS images caught 2019 LD2 again – now truly looking like a comet, with a faint tail made of dust or gas. The asteroid passed behind the Sun and was not observable from the Earth in late 2019 and early 2020, but upon its reappearance in the night sky in April of 2020, routine ATLAS observations confirmed that it still looks like a comet. These observations showed that 2019 LD2 has probably been continuously active for almost a year.

While ATLAS has discovered more than 40 comets, what makes this object extraordinary is its orbit. The early indication that it was an asteroid near Jupiter’s orbit have now been confirmed through precise measurements from many different observatories. In fact, 2019 LD2 is a special kind of asteroid called a Jupiter Trojan – and no object of this type has ever before been seen to spew out dust and gas like a comet.

There are a number of mysteries here. First, why should it have suddenly become active, since its orbit is relatively circular (similar to Jupiter’s)? Second, it had been assumed that the Jupiter Trojans had been in their orbits for a long time and had long ago vented any ice on their surfaces. This discovery proves that assumption false. It suggests that either this asteroid is a comet that was recently captured, or that things can happen on these asteroids to bring some buried volatiles up to the surface, where they can then vent.

Above all, this asteroid shows that it is dangerous to assume all Jupiter Trojan asteroids are the same. I guarantee when we finally get a close look at a bunch, when the Lucy mission arrives beginning in 2027, the variety will be quite spectacular.


OSIRIS-REx rehearsal and landing rescheduled

The OSIRIS-REx science team today announced that, in order to give them more preparation time needed because of the coronavirus protocols, they have rescheduled their second rehearsal of the spacecraft’s touch-and-go sample grab from the asteroid Bennu from June to August, and delayed the actual touch-and-go sample grab from August to October.

The mission had originally planned to perform the first Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event on Aug. 25 after completing a second rehearsal in June. This rehearsal, now scheduled for Aug. 11, will bring the spacecraft through the first three maneuvers of the sample collection sequence to an approximate altitude of 131 ft (40 m) over the surface of Bennu. The first sample collection attempt is now scheduled for Oct. 20, during which the spacecraft will descend to Bennu’s surface and collect material from sample site Nightingale.

Previously they had said that the rehearsal would get as close as 82 feet. Nothing has changed. That distance was the closest they expected the spacecraft to get. The new number, 131 feet, is in the middle of possible ranges. As explained to me by Erin Morton, head of communications for OSIRIS-REx in the Principal Investigator’s Office, “I originally chose the lowest altitude in that range to include in our public outreach materials, but later realized that it made more sense to use the mid-point altitude number, since that’s the average of the high and low possibilities.”

Though they have the ability to do two more sample grabs if the first in October is unsuccessful, they won’t bother if it succeeds. They must leave Bennu regardless in mid-2021 to return the sample to Earth on September 24, 2023.


OSIRIS-REx’s landing spot on the asteroid Bennu

Bennu, annotated
Click for full resolution unlabeled image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released another image of the asteroid Bennu, this time showing the planned Nightingale touch-and-go sample grab landing site.

The image to the right, reduced, cropped, and annotated by me, is that image. From the caption:

The crater where sample site Nightingale is located can be seen near the top, center of the image – it is a small region containing dark, fine-grained material. Bennu’s prime meridian boulder, Simurgh Saxum , is also visible in the lower left of the image, near the asteroid’s limb. Directly east of Simurgh is Roc Saxum . The field of view is 0.3 miles (0.5 km). For reference, Simurgh is 125 ft (38 m) across, which is about the size of a commercial airliner.

Nightingale is only about 50 feet across, which is about a third the size of the kind of smooth areas they had designed their grab-and-go equipment around. This global image illustrates the difficulties they face with that sample grab. Though there appear to be larger areas in this photo that seem smooth, they really are not. The asteroid has no dust, and the sample grab equipment is designed to suck up particles smaller than 0.8 inches in diameter. Most of the surface is covered with pebbles and gravel larger than this.

Thus they needed to find a spot where the bulk of the material is “fine-grained.” Nightingale fits that bill, though it has a small footprint and also has larger particles that pose a risk to the sample grab because they could damage the spacecraft, or clog the sample grab equipment.

Either way, for the spacecraft to autonomously guide itself accurately down to this small spot, surrounded as it is by much larger boulders, will be challenging, and is why they have done one dress rehearsal already, getting as close as 213 feet, and will do a second in June, getting down to 82 feet.


Bennu’s equatorial craters

Bennu's craters
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a neat image of Bennu, highlighting the string of impact craters along the rubble-pile asteroid’s equatorial ridge. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows that image. From the release:

Bennu’s darkest boulder, Gargoyle Saxum , is visible on the equator, near the left limb. On the asteroid’s southern hemisphere, Bennu’s largest boulder, Benben Saxum , casts a long shadow over the surface. The field of view is 0.4 miles (0.7 km). For reference, the largest crater in the center of the image is 257 ft (78 m) wide, which is almost the size of a football field.

The photo was taken from a distance of six miles on April 28. The craters illustrate well the rubble pile/sandbox nature of this asteroid. They all look like what you’d expect if the impact was able to easily drive itself deep into the a pile of sand and loose rocks. The resulting crater thus has a very indistinct rim and a sloping floor down to a central point.


Evidence suggests Ryugu was once closer to Sun

The uncertainty of science: Spectral data collected of the surface of Ryugu by Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe suggests that the asteroid once spent a period of time much closer to the Sun.

The combined data show an oddly striated world. Ryugu’s equator and poles are tinged blue and are brighter compared with its darker, reddish mid-latitudes. These color differences wouldn’t be obvious to the human eye, although the brightness changes might be.

…As Tomokatsu Morota (University of Tokyo) and colleagues write in the May 8th Science, Ryugu’s boulders likely start bluish. Then a combination of solar wind exposure, meteoroid impacts, and solar heating reddens them. This redder stuff migrates to the asteroid’s mid-latitudes over time, because topographically those are the lowest on Ryugu’s surface. That movement leaves the higher equator and polar regions relatively bluer and brighter.

Based on this data, the scientists posit that Ryugu was closer to the Sun from 800,000 to 8 million years ago, and that the evidence also suggests that the asteroid is only at most 17 million years old.

To put it mildly, there are great uncertainties to these conclusions.


Movie of OSIRIS-REx’s 1st landing rehearsal

Closest NavCam-2 image during rehearsal
Click for full movie.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a short movie taken by one of the spacecraft’s navigation camera (NavCam-2) during its first landing rehearsal on April 14. The image to the right, cropped to post here, is the closest image in the sequence, and shows the relatively smooth Nightingale target landing site near the bottom of the image, approximately 50 feet in diameter.

According to the release,

NavCam 2 captures images for the spacecraft’s Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) navigation system. The NFT system allows the spacecraft to autonomously guide itself to Bennu’s surface by comparing real-time images with an onboard image catalog. As the spacecraft descends to the surface, the NFT system updates the spacecraft’s predicted point of contact depending on OSIRIS-REx’s position in relation to Bennu’s landmarks. During the sample collection event, scheduled for August, the NavCam 2 camera will continuously image Bennu’s surface so that the NFT system can update the spacecraft’s position and velocity relative to Bennu as it descends towards the targeted touchdown point.

When the image above was taken the spacecraft was at its closest point, about 213 feet above the surface. Based on this movie, it looks like the system was working, and the spacecraft was refining its aim to head towards Nightingale.

Still, the landing site is not in the center of the image, which I would think is a concern, especially because Nightingale is only one-third the size of the kind of smooth target areas they had designed the system for. (When launched they expected to see smooth areas at least 160 feet across, and designed the system for this.)

The second rehearsal is presently scheduled for June 23, and will drop OSIRIS-REx to within 82 feet of the surface.


First exoplanet imaged was nothing more than a debris cloud

The uncertainty of science: What had originally been thought to be the first image ever taken of an exoplanet has now turned out to be only the fading and expanding cloud of debris, left over from a collusion.

The object, called Fomalhaut b, was first announced in 2008, based on data taken in 2004 and 2006. It was clearly visible in several years of Hubble observations that revealed it was a moving dot. Until then, evidence for exoplanets had mostly been inferred through indirect detection methods, such as subtle back-and-forth stellar wobbles, and shadows from planets passing in front of their stars.

Unlike other directly imaged exoplanets, however, nagging puzzles arose with Fomalhaut b early on. The object was unusually bright in visible light, but did not have any detectable infrared heat signature. Astronomers conjectured that the added brightness came from a huge shell or ring of dust encircling the planet that may possibly have been collision-related. The orbit of Fomalhaut b also appeared unusual, possibly very eccentric. “Our study, which analyzed all available archival Hubble data on Fomalhaut revealed several characteristics that together paint a picture that the planet-sized object may never have existed in the first place,” said Gáspár.

The team emphasizes that the final nail in the coffin came when their data analysis of Hubble images taken in 2014 showed the object had vanished, to their disbelief. Adding to the mystery, earlier images showed the object to continuously fade over time, they say. “Clearly, Fomalhaut b was doing things a bona fide planet should not be doing,” said Gáspár.

The interpretation is that Fomalhaut b is slowly expanding from the smashup that blasted a dissipating dust cloud into space. Taking into account all available data, Gáspár and Rieke think the collision occurred not too long prior to the first observations taken in 2004. By now the debris cloud, consisting of dust particles around 1 micron (1/50th the diameter of a human hair), is below Hubble’s detection limit. The dust cloud is estimated to have expanded by now to a size larger than the orbit of Earth around our Sun.

This is not the first exoplanet that astronauts thought they had imaged, only to find out later that it was no such thing.

Remember this when next you hear or read some scientist telling you they are certain about their results, or that the science is “settled.” Unless you can get close enough to get a real picture in high resolution, or have tons of data from many different sources over a considerable period of time, and conclusions must always be subject to skepticism


Movie of OSIRIS-REx touch-and-go rehearsal

Checkpoint rehearsal: last image
Click for movie.

The OSIRIS-REx science team yesterday released a short movie, compiled from thirty images taken during the April 14, 2020 rehearsal of the spacecraft’s planned August touch-and-go sample grab from the asteroid Bennu.

The rehearsal brought the spacecraft through the first two maneuvers of the sampling event to a point approximately 213 feet (65 meters) above the surface, before backing the spacecraft away. These images were recorded over a ten-minute span between the execution of the rehearsal’s “Checkpoint” burn, approximately 394 feet (120 meters) above the surface, and the completion of the back-away burn, which occurred approximately 213 feet (65 meters) above the surface. The spacecraft’s sampling arm – called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – is visible in the central part of the frame, and the relatively clear, dark patch of Bennu’s sample site Nightingale is visible in the later images, at the top. The large, dark boulder that the spacecraft approaches during the sequence is 43 feet (13 meters) on its longest axis.

The image to the right is the last frame of the movie, as the spacecraft has begun its retreat. The smoother area of Nightingale is at the top.

Based on the video, it appears as if the spacecraft would have missed the Nightingale target site had the rehearsal continued to touchdown. This might not be so, however. And even if it is, the reason for the rehearsal is to allow engineers to refine the process to make it more accurate. We shall see what changes in the second rehearsal in about a month or so.


OSIRIS-REx successfully completes touch-and-go rehearsal

OSIRIS-REx yesterday successfully completed its first dress rehearsal of the maneuver that will allow it in August to touch the surface of the asteroid Bennu and grab a sample.

Four hours after departing its 0.6-mile (1-km) safe-home orbit, the spacecraft performed the Checkpoint maneuver at an approximate altitude of 410 feet (125 meters) above Bennu’s surface. From there, the spacecraft continued to descend for another nine minutes on a trajectory toward – but not reaching – the location of the sampling event’s third maneuver, the “Matchpoint” burn. Upon reaching an altitude of approximately 246 ft (75 m) – the closest the spacecraft has ever been to Bennu – OSIRIS-REx performed a back-away burn to complete the rehearsal.

During the rehearsal, the spacecraft successfully deployed its sampling arm, the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), from its folded, parked position out to the sample collection configuration. Additionally, some of the spacecraft’s instruments collected science and navigation images and made spectrometry observations of the sample site, as will occur during the sample collection event.

They plan one more rehearsal, getting even closer to the asteroid, before the August 25 sample grab.


OSIRIS-REx’s sample grab location on Bennu

Nightingale site on Bennu
Click for full image.

On April 14th engineers for the probe OSIRIS-REx will do the first of two dress rehearsals of their planned touch-and-go sample grab from the asteroid Bennu, presently planned for August 25.

The image to the right was taken on March 3, 2020 from about 1,000 feet away during the spacecraft’s third reconnaissance phase, and is centered on that touch-and-go site, dubbed Nightingale by the science team. It illustrates why that sample grab carries risks that were unexpected. As they point out on the image’s release page, “the rock in the [upper right] of the image is 2 ft (70 cm) long, which is about the length of a small ice chest.” Moreover, across the entire touchdown site are numerous other rocks ranging in size from fists to laptops.

When they designed the mission, they had assumed there would be places on Bennu’s surface made up mostly of dust. areas where such dust would have gathered into ponds, as seen in other asteroids. The expectation also assumed these areas would be larger than any of the smooth areas found on Bennu. As they have noted:
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OSIRIS-REx to do sample-grab rehearsal at Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a step-by-step description of the first touch-and-go sample grab rehearsal, planned for April 14, 2020.

During the rehearsal, dubbed “Checkpoint,” they expect the spacecraft to get less than 250 feet from the surface of the asteroid Bennu before pulling away.

Checkpoint rehearsal, a four-hour event, begins with the spacecraft leaving its safe-home orbit, 0.6 miles (1 km) above the asteroid. The spacecraft then extends its robotic sampling arm – the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – from its folded, parked position out to the sample collection configuration. Immediately following, the spacecraft slews, or rotates, into position to begin collecting navigation images for NFT guidance. NFT allows the spacecraft to autonomously guide itself to Bennu’s surface by comparing an onboard image catalog with the real-time navigation images taken during descent. As the spacecraft descends to the surface, the NFT system updates the spacecraft’s predicted point of contact depending on OSIRIS-REx’s position in relation to Bennu’s landmarks.

Before reaching the 410-ft (125-m) Checkpoint altitude, the spacecraft’s solar arrays move into a “Y-wing” configuration that safely positions them away from the asteroid’s surface. This configuration also places the spacecraft’s center of gravity directly over the TAGSAM collector head, which is the only part of the spacecraft that will contact Bennu’s surface during the sample collection event.

In the midst of these activities, the spacecraft continues capturing images of Bennu’s surface for the NFT navigation system. The spacecraft will then perform the Checkpoint burn and descend toward Bennu’s surface for another nine minutes, placing the spacecraft around 243 ft (75 m) from the asteroid – the closest it has ever been.

They will do a second rehearsal on June 23, getting within 100 feet of the surface. The actual touch-and-go sample grab is now scheduled for August 25.


Big sections break off of interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov

The uncertainty of science: New observations of the interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov as it exits our solar system indicate that large fragments have recently broken from it, and that the comet might possibly be on the verge of breaking up.

Astronomers have seen evidence of two fragments, but the data suggests these are relatively small compared to the entire comet. On the other hand,

Before perihelion, Jewitt’s analysis of Hubble images showed that Comet Borisov is much smaller than had been thought. The comet’s nucleus is not directly visible, but in the January 10th Astrophysical Journal Letters, Jewitt put its diameter between 0.4 and 1 kilometer. That’s small enough that solar vaporization of surface ices on the side facing the Sun could spin up its rotation beyond gravity’s ability to hold it together.

However, the comet’s size is tricky to estimate, as its surface appears to be emitting so much gas and dust that it obscures the nucleus. The fragment that Jewitt observed is about as bright as the comet itself, but because its surface is so icy and active, he thinks the fragment’s mass is less than 1% of the whole comet. That would make the split more like a side mirror dropping off a car than a car falling apart. Why the fragment split from the comet is unclear, but possibilities include thermal vaporization after new material was exposed, as well as the force from the comet’s spin if it’s spinning as fast as Jewitt suggests.

Whether the comet is about to break up remains unknown. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone was racing to put a mission together to visit it?


Triple impact on Moon

Impact craters Messier and Messier A on the Moon

Cool image time! A new image release from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) takes a look at the impact process that created the crater Messier and its neighbor crater Messier A. The photo to the right, cropped to post here, shows both craters.

Take a close look at Messier A. It is actually a double crater itself. From the release:

Messier A crater, located in Mare Fecunditatis, presents an interesting puzzle. The main crater is beautifully preserved, with a solidified pond of impact melt resting in its floor. But there is another impact crater beneath and just to the west of Messier A. This more subdued and degraded impact crater clearly formed first.

Did these three craters happen as separate events. According to the data, it appears no. Instead, they might have all been part of a single rain of asteroids, all occurring in seconds.
» Read more


OSIRIS-REx makes closest reconnaissance of Bennu yet

The spacecraft OSIRIS-REx yesterday made its closest reconnaissance yet of the asteroid Bennu, sweeping past its primary touch-and-go landing site Nightingale by a distance of only 820 feet.

The main goal of yesterday’s low flyover was to collect high-resolution imagery of the site’s surface material. The spacecraft’s sample collection mechanism is designed to pick up small rocks less than 0.8 inches (2 cm) in size, and the PolyCam images from this low pass are very detailed, allowing the team to identify and locate rocks of this size. Several of the spacecraft’s other instruments also took observations of the Nightingale site during the flyover event, including the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES), the OSIRIS-REx Visual and InfraRed Spectrometer (OVIRS), the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), and the MapCam color imager.

After completing the flyover, the spacecraft returned to orbit – but for the first time, OSIRIS-REx reversed the direction of its safe-home orbit and is now circling Bennu clockwise (as viewed from the Sun). This shift in orbital direction positioned the spacecraft for its next close encounter with the asteroid – its first rehearsal for the sample collection event.

The touch-and-go sample grab is targeted to take place in August.


Protein molecules found in meteorite

Scientists have discovered bits of a protein molecule inside a meteorite that fell in Algeria in 1990 and was quickly recovered.

The protein is called hemolithin.

For hemolithin to have formed naturally in the configuration found would require glycine to form first, perhaps on the surface of grains of space dust. After that, heat by way of molecular clouds might have induced units of glycine to begin linking into polymer chains, which at some point, could evolve into fully formed proteins. The researchers note that the atom groupings on the tips of the protein form an iron oxide that has been seen in prior research to absorb photons—a means of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, thereby producing an energy source that would also be necessary for the development of life.

The real significance of this find is what it reveals we do not know. Most asteroid material from the very beginnings of the solar system (the type of material that would contain such a protein) is very fragile, and does not survive the journey though the Earth’s atmosphere. Thus, our meteorite sample obtained here on Earth, which is our entire sample, is very biased.

When we start getting samples back from asteroids (as both Hayabusa-2 and OSIRIS-REx are about to do), our understanding of the early solar system, as well as that of asteroids, will change radically. This story only gives us a hint of that fact.

Hat tip reader and fellow caver John Harman.


OSIRIS-REx bypasses laser altimeter issue

The science team for OSIRIS-REx has figured out a bypass for the failure of one of the spacecraft’s laser altimeters, originally used during close flyovers of the surface of the rubble-pile asteroid Bennu.

The mission has made the decision to use OLA’s High Energy Laser Transmitter (HELT) to provide the ranging data to focus PolyCam during the Mar. 3 flyover of site Nightingale. OLA consists of two laser subsystems, the HELT and the Low-Energy Laser Transmitter (LELT). OLA’s LELT was originally scheduled to provide these data, however, as a result of the anomaly that occurred during the Recon B site Osprey flyover, the team has determined that the LELT system is no longer operable. Despite the LELT’s condition, the HELT system has continued to operate as expected, and will be used to focus PolyCam for the remaining reconnaissance passes.

According to Erin Morton, head of communications for OSIRIS-REx in the Principal Investigator’s Office, the failure of LELT will not impact the touch-and-go sample grab, presently scheduled for sometime in August.

We don’t need OLA [either the low or high energy transmitters] for the sample collection event. OLA’s main purpose was to collect the altimetry data needed to make topographical maps for the sample site decision. It successfully accomplished that last year – which means that the instrument has completed all of its primary mission requirements. OLA isn’t used for navigation.

Instead, they are using an autonomous system that compares previous high resolution images with images taken during descent. In addition, they have a lidar system available as well.


Falcon Heavy wins launch contract for NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded the launch contract for its Psyche asteroid mission, set to launch in July 2022, to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

The total bid price was $117 million, which according to the release includes “the launch service and other mission related costs.” Though this is higher than the normal price SpaceX charges for a Falcon Heavy launch ($100 million), it is far lower than the typical price of a ULA launch. Furthermore, Falcon Heavy has more power, so it can get the spacecraft to the asteroid faster.


First image of possible asteroid in orbit around the Earth

asteroid orbiting the Earth?
Click for full image.

The Gemini telescope in Hawaii has produced the first image of what might be only the second asteroid ever discovered in orbit around the Earth.

The newly discovered orbiting object has been assigned the provisional designation 2020 CD3 by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. If it is natural in origin, such as an asteroid, then it is only the second known rocky satellite of the Earth ever discovered in space other than the Moon. The other body, discovered in 2006, has since been ejected out of Earth orbit. 2020 CD3 was discovered on the night of 15 February 2020 by Kacper Wierzchos and Teddy Pruyne at the Catalina Sky Survey operating out of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona.

The photo to the right has been cropped to post here. The streaks are stars, since the telescope was tracking the asteroid in an attempt to cull the most resolution of it from the image.

This object is only a few yards across, and could very well be a piece of space junk from a mission launched many decades ago. It is also not in a stable orbit around the Earth, and is expected to be ejected from that orbit in April.


New OSIRIS-REx close-up image of secondary asteroid landing site

Osprey landing site on Bennu
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released one of the images taken during the spacecraft’s recent close reconnaissance of its secondary touch-and-go landing site on the asteroid Bennu.

I have cropped their oblique image to focus, in full resolution, on that landing site, dubbed Osprey, which is the crater on the left side of the photo. The boulder in that crater “is 17 ft (5.2 m) long, which is about the length of a box truck.”

After the fly-by, the science team had announced that the spacecraft’s laser altimeter had failed to operate, and the images taken by its highest resolution camera (not the camera that took today’s image) “are likely out of focus.”

Based on this image, what look like tiny pebbles inside the crater are actually boulders ranging in size from mere inches to as much as five feet across. If their high resolution images are soft, it will thus be hard to map out the terrain sufficiently to safely make a touch-and-go landing here.

More important, there is still no word on whether they have fixed the laser altimeter. Without it I suspect a landing will be very difficult, if not impossible.


Japan to send unmanned probe to Mars’ moon Phobos

The new colonial movement: Japan revealed yesterday that it plans to send unmanned probe to Mars’ moon Phobos, using the basic designs developed for the asteroid mission Hayabusa-2.

Like Hayabusa-2, they will attempt to grab a sample from Phobos, and will launch in September 2024, returning its sample in 2029.


Anomaly during OSIRIS-REx flyover of secondary landing site

During its close fly-over of its secondary candidate touch-and-go landing site on the asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-REx’s laser altimeter failed to work as planned.

On Feb. 11, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft safely executed a 0.4-mile (620-m) flyover of the backup sample collection site Osprey as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance B phase activities. Preliminary telemetry, however, indicates that the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) did not operate as expected during the 11-hour event. The OLA instrument was scheduled to provide ranging data to the spacecraft’s PolyCam imager, which would allow the camera to focus while imaging the area around the sample collection site. Consequently, the PolyCam images from the flyover are likely out of focus.

They are analyzing their data to figure out what went wrong and whether it can be fixed. The press release implies that this loss will not impact the touch-and-go at the primary landing site, but does not say so directly. Without the laser altimeter I wonder, how they will know their exact distance as they approach?

Then again, they have not yet downloaded the full dataset from the fly-over, so they might be able to get the instrument working again.


An update on Comet 2I/Borisov

Link here.

Overall, this second known interstellar object to pass through the solar system appears to be a very typical comet. They have found however that its nucleus is much smaller than at first thought, only 200 to 500 meters across, which means that radiation pressure from the Sun could cause its rotation to spin up, with the possibility that this spin could get fast enough to cause the comet to break up.

The comet made its closest approach to the Sun in December, and will spend the next year-plus flying outward to beyond Saturn.


OSIRIS-REx completes close fly-over of Bennu touchdown site

OSIRIS-REx has successfully completed the first of a series of increasingly closer fly-overs of its primary sample grab sites on the asteroid Bennu.

The spacecraft got as close as about 2,000 feet in order to take more high resolution images of the Nightingale landing site where they hope in August to do a touch-and-go sample grab.

A similar flyover of the backup sample collection site, Osprey, is scheduled for Feb. 11. Even lower flybys will be performed later this spring – Mar. 3 for Nightingale and May 26 for Osprey – as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance C phase activities. The spacecraft will perform these two flyovers at an altitude of 820 feet (250 m), which will be the closest it has ever flown over asteroid Bennu’s surface.


The oldest known meteorite strike?

The uncertainty of science: Scientists think they have identified the oldest meteorite strike known on Earth, dated at 2.33 billion years ago, located in a known impact site in Yarrabubba, Western Australia.

Lead author Dr Timmons Erickson, from Curtin’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, together with a team including Professor Chris Kirkland, Associate Professor Nicholas Timms and Senior Research Fellow Dr Aaron Cavosie, all from Curtin’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences, analysed the minerals zircon and monazite that were ‘shock recrystallized’ by the asteroid strike, at the base of the eroded crater to determine the exact age of Yarrabubba.

The team inferred that the impact may have occurred into an ice-covered landscape, vaporised a large volume of ice into the atmosphere, and produced a 70km diameter crater in the rocks beneath.

Professor Kirkland said the timing raised the possibility that the Earth’s oldest asteroid impact may have helped lift the planet out of a deep freeze. “Yarrabubba, which sits between Sandstone and Meekatharra in central WA, had been recognised as an impact structure for many years, but its age wasn’t well determined,” Professor Kirkland said. “Now we know the Yarrabubba crater was made right at the end of what’s commonly referred to as the early Snowball Earth – a time when the atmosphere and oceans were evolving and becoming more oxygenated and when rocks deposited on many continents recorded glacial conditions”.

Associate Professor Nicholas Timms noted the precise coincidence between the Yarrabubba impact and the disappearance of glacial deposits. “The age of the Yarrabubba impact matches the demise of a series of ancient glaciations. After the impact, glacial deposits are absent in the rock record for 400 million years. This twist of fate suggests that the large meteorite impact may have influenced global climate,” Associate Professor Timms said. [emphasis mine]

I truly believe they have determined the approximate age of this impact, making it one of the oldest known impacts. Implying however a “precise” linkage to other only vaguely known climate events, and inferring that the former was the cause of the latter seems to me to be a very large overstatement. Their data might suggest this conclusion, but the uncertainties here demand a bit less certitude..


First asteroid discovered that circles Sun closer than Venus

Astronomers have detected the first asteroid circling the Sun in an orbit that lies entirely inside Venus’s orbit.

In addition to being the first known asteroid with this orbit, the space rock, called 2020 AV2, has the smallest aphelion, or distance from the sun, of any known natural object in the solar system, excluding Mercury. Moreover, by traveling around the sun in a mere 151 days, 2020 AV2 has the shortest orbital period of any known asteroid, according to The Virtual Telescope Project, an online observatory based in Italy.

The reason this is a first is because it is very hard to find such small objects orbiting closer to the Sun than Earth. The glare of the Sun limits what can be spotted. This fact is also why the scientists are unsure of the size of 2020 AV2.

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