Tag Archives: asteroids

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.


Hayabusa-2 has begun approach to Ryugu

Ryugu during approach

Hayabusa-2 has begun its approach to Ryugu, aiming for a quick touchdown and sample grab at approximately 7:06 pm (Eastern) tonight. The image at the right is the most recent taken during the approach.

The risks? From the Hayabusa-2 website:

Our original schedule planned for touchdown in late October of last year (2018). However, Ryugu was revealed as a boulder strewn landscape that extended across the entire surface, with no flat or wide-open regions. Before arriving at Ryugu, it was assumed there would be flat areas around 100 meters in size. But far than finding this, we have not even seen flat planes 30 meters across!

During the scheduled time for touchdown in late October, we did not touchdown but descended and dropped a target marker near the intended landing site. We were able to drop the target marker in almost the planned spot and afterwards we examined the vicinity of the target marker landing site in detail. Finally, the area denoted L08-E1 was selected as the place for touchdown.

From the first link above you can see approach images as they are downloaded today, about once every half hour.


Hayabusa-2 prepares to land

Ryugu's northen hemisphere

The JAXA science team has released a set of images taken in January by Hayabusa-2 of its landing site on Ryugu, describing how those images helped map the region where touchdown will occur on February 22. The image on the right is one such image.

[It] shows a diagonally imaged photograph of Ryugu, captured by moving the spacecraft towards the direction of the north pole. The upper side of the image shows the north pole and reveals a landscape dominated with many large boulders. The white band extending to the left and right slightly below the center of the image is the equatorial ridge (Ryujin Ridge). The arrow tip marks the planned touchdown site and you can see this site is on the main ridge.

This is the first time we have images the northern hemisphere of Ryugu. In this observation, we acquired data on the equatorial region of Ryugu, the southern and northern hemisphere. Imaging the entire area is very important for creating accurate global shape models for Ryugu.

They should begin beaming images down of the landing approach sometime tomorrow, and will do so about every 30 minutes throughout the sequence.


Asteroid to eclipse Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, on February 18

On February 18, 2019 a four-mile wide asteroid is going to pass in front of Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, and block its light for just under two seconds.

Can a 7-kilometer-wide asteroid make Sirius disappear? You bet it can. That just might happen on Monday night, February 18th. That evening around 10:30 p.m. MST (5:30 UT February 19th), there’s a good probability that the 17th-magnitude 4388 Jürgenstock will occult the sky’s brightest star for up to 1.8 seconds. Visibility stretches along a narrow path from the southern tip of Baja California to the Las Cruces–El Paso region, up through the Great Plains, and north to the Winnipeg area. While only a limited number of people may see this event, anytime Sirius disappears, however briefly, it’s news!

In the U.S. the narrow path cuts through New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. If you live in or near this path, this is definitely worth watching, especially since it will be happening at a convenient hour in the evening.


Recent Cuba meteorite estimated to have weighed about 360 tons

Using its imaged track from several sources, scientists have now estimated the size and weight of the recent spectacular fireball over Cuba as being several meters across and weighing about 360 tons.

After reconstructing the trajectory in the atmosphere, the Colombian astronomers “played back” the impact and found that the culprit, a rock with an estimated size of several meters and a weight of about 360 tons, came from an eccentric orbit around the Sun with an average distance to our star of 1.3 astronomical units (1 astronomical-unit = 150 million km). Before impacting the Earth, the rock completed a turn around the Sun every 1.32 years. All that came to an end on February 1, 2019 when both, the rock and the Earth, found themselves at the same point in space, at the same time. The worse part was for the rock!

The article spends most of its time selling a computer model the scientists have developed that they claim can predict the approach trajectory of meteorites, something I find quite unconvincing. However, the result above is important for different reasons. Routinely astronomers today discover new small asteroids just days before they zoom harmlessly past the Earth. Each time one of these new near Earth asteroids is found, the press automatically goes into “Chicken Little mode,” suggesting that should this object have hit the Earth it would have caused massive damage.

Most of these newly discovered asteroids are about the same size as the Cuba meteorite, if not smaller. Thus, this meteorite gives us a clear idea of how completely harmless these other near Earth asteroids are. In fact, this impact suggests to me that in most cases an asteroid would have to be about ten times larger to pose a significant threat.

Keep this number — 360 tons — in mind the next time another near Earth asteroid is discovered.


New Horizons’ farewell image of Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule's shape

The New Horizons science team has released the last sequence of images taken by the spacecraft as flew away after its flyby.

The link has a nice video of that sequence. However, it is the information gleaned from this sequence that is most interesting.

The newly released images also contain important scientific information about the shape of Ultima Thule, which is turning out to be one of the major discoveries from the flyby.

The first close-up images of Ultima Thule – with its two distinct and, apparently, spherical segments – had observers calling it a “snowman.” However, more analysis of approach images and these new departure images have changed that view, in part by revealing an outline of the portion of the KBO that was not illuminated by the Sun, but could be “traced out” as it blocked the view to background stars.

Stringing 14 of these images into a short departure movie, New Horizons scientists can confirm that the two sections (or “lobes”) of Ultima Thule are not spherical. The larger lobe, nicknamed “Ultima,” more closely resembles a giant pancake and the smaller lobe, nicknamed “Thule,” is shaped like a dented walnut.

The image on the right shows their preliminary guess at Ultima Thule’s overall shape, as suggested by these new images.

The spacecraft has still not sent back the images it took during its closest approach, so there are likely more surprises coming.


Rare asteroid orbiting near Venus discovered

The Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), a new sky survey telescope whose main goal is to find Near Earth asteroids, has discovered a rare asteroid orbiting near Venus.

A state-of-the-art sky-surveying camera, the Zwicky Transient Facility, or ZTF, detected the asteroid on January 4, 2019. Designated 2019 AQ3, the object has the shortest “year” of any recorded asteroid, with an orbital period of just 165 days. It also appears to be an unusually big asteroidal specimen. “We have found an extraordinary object whose orbit barely strays beyond Venus’ orbit—that’s a big deal,” said Quanzhi Ye, a postdoctoral scholar at IPAC, a data and science center for astronomy at Caltech. Ye called 2019 AQ3 a “very rare species,” further noting that “there might be many more undiscovered asteroids out there like it.”

…The orbit, as it turns out, is angled vertically, taking 2019 AQ3 above and below the plane where the planets run their laps around the sun. Over its short year, 2019 AQ3 plunges inside of Mercury, then swings back up just outside of Venus’ orbit.

The telescope, in operation since March 2018, and so far found

nearly 60 new near-Earth asteroids. Two of these were spotted in July 2018 mere hours before they gave Earth quite a close shave. Designated 2018 NW and 2018 NX, the duo of bus-sized asteroids whipped past at a distance of about 70,000 miles, or only a third of the way to the moon. Fortunately, the newfound 2019 AQ3 poses no threat; the closest it ever comes to Earth is about 22 million miles.


Rock from Earth, found on Moon?

The uncertainty of science: Scientists studying rocks brought back by the Apollo 14 lunar mission have concluded that one sample originally came from the Earth, and if so would be the oldest known Earth rock.

It is possible that the sample is not of terrestrial origin, but instead crystallized on the Moon, however, that would require conditions never before inferred from lunar samples. It would require the sample to have formed at tremendous depths, in the lunar mantle, where very different rock compositions are anticipated. Therefore, the simplest interpretation is that the sample came from Earth.

The team’s analyses are providing additional details about the sample’s history. The rock crystallized about 20 kilometers beneath Earth’s surface 4.0-4.1 billion years ago. It was then excavated by one or more large impact events and launched into cis-lunar space. Previous work by the team showed that impacting asteroids at that time were producing craters thousands of kilometers in diameter on Earth, sufficiently large to bring material from those depths to the surface. Once the sample reached the lunar surface, it was affected by several other impact events, one of which partially melted it 3.9 billion years ago, and which probably buried it beneath the surface. The sample is therefore a relic of an intense period of bombardment that shaped the Solar System during the first billion years. After that period, the Moon was affected by smaller and less frequent impact events. The final impact event to affect this sample occurred about 26 million years ago, when an impacting asteroid hit the Moon, producing the small 340 meter-diameter Cone Crater, and excavating the sample back onto the lunar surface where astronauts collected it almost exactly 48 years ago (January 31–February 6, 1971).

The scientists also admit that their conclusion is controversial and will be disputed. If true, however, it suggests that there is significant material on the Moon from the early Earth that can provide a window into parts our planet’s history that are presently inaccessible.


Oblique close-up image of Ceres

Ceres from Dawn

The Dawn science team has released an oblique close-up image of Ceres, taken in May 2018 before the Dawn mission ended. To the right is a reduced resolution version, with the full resolution photograph viewable if you click on it.

Dawn captured this view on May 19, 2018. The image shows the limb of Ceres at about 270E, 30N looking south. The spatial resolution is about 200 feet (60 meters) per pixel in the nearest parts of the image. The impact crater to the right (only partially visible) is Ninsar, named after a Sumerian goddess of plants and vegetation. It is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) in diameter.

Bright seeps running down the interior rims of several craters are visible. To my eye, the image also suggests an overall softness to Ceres. Its surface is like a sandbox, easily reshaped significantly by each impact.


Orbital images of Bennu

Close-up of Bennu's southern hemisphere

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released two new images of Bennu’s southern hemisphere, taken from orbit. The image on the right is a cropped section of the highest resolution version of a montage of two images. Click on the image to see the entire two-image montage.

These two OpNav images of Bennu’s southern hemisphere, which each have an exposure time of about 1.4 milliseconds, were captured Jan. 17 from a distance of about one mile (1.6 km). They have been cropped and the contrast has been adjusted to better reveal surface features. The large boulder – fully visible in the middle of the left frame and in partial shadow in lower portion of right frame – is about 165 feet (50 meters) across.

The cropped section to the right shows that large boulder in the middle of the frame.

I’m sorry, but when I look at this rubble-pile asteroid I cannot help but think of the cat-litter clumps I remove from our cats’ litter box. The only fundamental difference is that the grains in cat litter are made to be a uniform size, while at Bennu the grains are much coarser and not uniform. Nonetheless, this asteroid is a clump of many grains, just like those cat litter clumps, and will likely crumple easily into a cloud of grains if smacked just hard enough.

This knowledge is actually very critical, as Bennu is a potentially dangerous asteroid with an orbit that might have it impact the Earth in about two hundred years.


New impact on the Martian south polar cap

New impact on Mars' south pole

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped to post here, was taken on October 5, 2018 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and shows a recent meteorite impact that occurred sometime between July and September of 2018 on the Martian polar cap . If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph. As noted in the captioned press release,

It’s notable because it occurred in the seasonal southern ice cap, and has apparently punched through it, creating a two-toned blast pattern.

The impact hit on the ice layer, and the tones of the blast pattern tell us the sequence. When an impactor hits the ground, there is a tremendous amount of force like an explosion. The larger, lighter-colored blast pattern could be the result of scouring by winds from the impact shockwave. The darker-colored inner blast pattern is because the impactor penetrated the thin ice layer, excavated the dark sand underneath, and threw it out in all directions on top of the layer.

Location on edge of south polar cap

It is not known yet the size of this meteorite. The location is shown in the overview image to the right, with the impact indicated by the white dot. The black circle in the middle of the image is the south pole itself, an area where MRO’s orbit does not allow imagery. This location, on the edge of the Martian polar cap, is helpful to scientists because it has excavated material from below the cap, providing them a peek into previously unseen the geology there. Had the impact been farther south, on the thicker cap, that hidden material below the cap would likely not have been exposed.

The cap itself is made up of both ice and frozen carbon dioxide, though the CO2 is mostly seen as frost during winter months that evaporates during the summer.


Moon hit by small meteorite during eclipse

During the lunar eclipse two days ago on January 20, 2018 amateur astronomers were able to record the impact of a small meteorite.

The MIDAS survey is a Moon-watching that scours video of its surface in the hopes of detecting the tiny flashes associated with meteorite impacts. In this case, MIDAS scored a home run, and it was the first time the system was able to spot an impact during a total lunar eclipse.

“In total I spent almost two days without sleeping, including the monitoring time during the eclipse,” [Jose] Madiedo explained to Gizmodo. “I was exhausted when the eclipse ended—but when the automatic detection software notified me of a bright flash, I jumped out of my chair. It was a very exciting moment because I knew such a thing had never been recorded before.”

The meteorite itself wasn’t terribly large, and is estimated to have only been around 22 pounds.

I have embedded the video of the impact below the fold. It is very short, and the flash is not very impressive, but it still is quite cool.
» Read more


No Planet X needed

The uncertainty of science: New computer models now suggest that the orbits of the known Kuiper Belt objects can be explained without the need for the theorized large Planet X.

The weirdly clustered orbits of some far-flung bodies in our solar system can be explained without invoking a big, undiscovered “Planet Nine,” a new study suggests.

The shepherding gravitational pull could come from many fellow trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) rather than a single massive world, according to the research.

“If you remove Planet Nine from the model, and instead allow for lots of small objects scattered across a wide area, collective attractions between those objects could just as easily account for the eccentric orbits we see in some TNOs,” study lead author Antranik Sefilian, a doctoral student in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University in England, said in a statement.

When you think about it, having many many scattered small objects in the Kuiper Belt makes much more sense than a few giant planets. Out there, it would be difficult for large objects to coalesce from the solar system’s initial accretion disk. The density of material would be too low. However, you might get a lot of small objects from that disk, which once formed would be too far apart to accrete into larger planets.

The use of the term “Planet Nine” by these scientists however is somewhat annoying, and that has less to do with Pluto and more to do with the general understanding of what it means to be a planet that has been evolving in the past two decades. There are clearly more than eight planets known in the solar system now. The large moons of the gas giants as well as the larger dwarf planets, such as Ceres, have been shown to have all the complex features of planets. And fundamentally, they are large enough to be spheres, not misshaped asteroids.


Ceres’ bright spots in Occator Crater

Occator Crater bright spot

Cool image time! The Dawn science team has released some additional images taken shortly before the mission’s conclusion when Dawn was in its closest orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres. On the right is a tiny cropped portion of a much larger mosaic of the bright spots on the floor of Occator Crater, focusing on one large bright spot that also includes a fissure cutting across it. If you click on the image you can see the entire mosaic, covering an additional four more bright areas.

The mosaic was taken in June 2018 from a distance of 21 miles.

The press release describes these bright areas as “deposits of salts, in particular sodium carbonate, possibly extruded through fractures connecting the surface to a deep reservoir of salty liquid.” That surely looks confirmed by the fissures in the image to the right.


Hayabusa-2 to grab asteroid samples in February

The Hayabusa-2 science team has decided that it will make their first attempt to land and grab samples from the asteroid Ryugu in February.

“The time has finally come,” JAXA senior project member Takashi Kubota said at a news conference on Jan. 8. “Two candidate landing spots have their own advantages and drawbacks, but we will robustly try to collect samples.” The two sites are near the equator of the asteroid. JAXA said it will pick one by early February.

Between Feb. 18 and Feb. 23, the Hayabusa 2 will start descending from its “home position” at an altitude of 20 kilometers from the asteroid. JAXA will use “target markers,” which will be dropped on Ryugu beforehand, to guide the probe.

Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to make three touch-and-go landings.

There are clearly risks here, since the asteroid is strewn so completely with rocks and boulders.


More results from New Horizons

Today’s press conference did not release any significantly new images. In fact, they did not provide much new information at all. They noted that based on the data obtained so far, they have confirmed that Ultima Thule has no moons closer than 100 miles, or further than 500 miles, but they have not yet gotten the data that looks in that gap.

They created a stereoscopic image using two images produced thirty minutes apart. This helps tell us where the bumps and depressions are on the surface, something that cannot be clearly determined from the first image because the sun was shining directly on it, producing no shadows. From this it appears that the smaller lobe has a very significant bump. More data from New Horizons will have to be downloaded to confirm this.

The reddish color of Ultima Thule places it in the center of a class of Kuiper Belt objects dubbed cold classical objects. This will help them better determine its make-up as more data arrives.

Overall, this press conference was mostly hype. They don’t yet have enough data from the spacecraft, and won’t have it for weeks. I’m therefore puzzled why they bothered today, unless they did it simply to keep the hype up about the mission so as to encourage funding to look for another object to fly past.

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