Hayabusa-2 begins journey to two asteroids

On January 5, 2021, after successfully delivering its samples of Ryugu to Earth, Hayabusa-2 fired up its ion engines and began its ten-year journey to two different asteroids.

Hayabusa2’s first extended-mission destination is the roughly 2,300-foot-wide (700 meters) asteroid (98943) 2001 CC21, which the probe will fly by at high speed in 2026, if all goes according to plan. A more in-depth rendezvous with yet another space rock, 1998 KY26, is scheduled to follow in 2031.

In a previous post I had mistakenly left out the first target asteroid. However, their primary target remains the tiny 100-foot-wide 1998 KY26, since it is so small. This will be the first close-up view of such a small asteroid, in space. Since such asteroids are many, it will tell us much about the make-up and history of the solar system.

First look at Ryugu samples

Japanese scientists have taken their first look at the Ryugu sample material brought back by Hayabusa-2 and found they resemble charcoal.

The samples Japanese space officials described Thursday are as big as 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) and rock hard, not breaking when picked up or poured into another container. Smaller black, sandy granules the spacecraft collected and returned separately were described last week.

…The sandy granules the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency described last week were from the spacecraft’s first touchdown in April 2019.

The larger fragments were from the compartment allocated for the second touchdown on Ryugu, said Tomohiro Usui, space materials scientist. To get the second set of samples in July last year, Hayabusa2 dropped an impactor to blast below the asteroid’s surface, collecting material from the crafter so it would be unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors.

Usui said the size differences suggest different hardness of the bedrock on the asteroid. “One possibility is that the place of the second touchdown was a hard bedrock and larger particles broke and entered the compartment.”

The analysis of these samples has only just begun. Dating them is likely next, and that will probably reveal some startling results.

Samples from space!

Scientists from both the Japanese Hayabusa-2 mission to the asteroid Ryugu and the Chinese Chang’e-5 mission to the Moon announced yesterday the total amount of material they successfully recovered.

The numbers appear to diminish the Japanese success, but that is a mistake. Getting anything back from a rubble-pile asteroid that had never been touched before and is much farther away from Earth than the Moon was a very great achievement. The 5.4 grams is also more than fifty times the minimum amount they had hoped for.

This is also not to diminish the Chinese achievement, They not only returned almost four pounds, some of that material also came from a core sample. They thus got material both from the surface and the interior of the Moon, no small feat from an unmanned robot craft.

Scientists from both nations will now begin studying their samples. Both have said that some samples will be made available to scientists from other countries, though in the case of China it will be tricky for any American scientist to partner with China in this research, since it is by federal law illegal for them to do so.

Subaru Telescope photographs Hayabusa-2’s next target asteroid

In order to better constrain its orbit, the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii has obtained new photographs of Hayabusa-2’s next target asteroid, 100-foot-wide 1998 KY26.

This asteroid is predicted to approach to within 0.47 AU of Earth in mid to late December 2020, giving us a rare opportunity that comes only once every three and a half years. However, the diameter of 1998 KY26 is estimated to be no more than 30 meters, and thus its brightness is so dim that ground-based observations of the asteroid are difficult without a very large telescope.

The observations with the Subaru Telescope were conducted upon the request of the Institute for Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), JAXA. And as a result, 1998 KY26 was photographed in the direction of the constellation Gemini as a 25.4-magnitude point of light with a measurement uncertainty of 0.7 mag. The positional data collected during these observations will be used to improve the accuracy of the orbital elements of the asteroid. Similar observations were conducted with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

If all goes right Hayabusa-2 will rendezvous with 1998 KY26 in the summer of 2031.

Scientists confirm ample Ryugu material in first Hayabuse sample chamber

Japanese scientists have opened the first chamber that stored the Ryugu asteroid samples obtained during its first touch-and-go sample grab, and confirmed that it holds ample material.

They also noted that the chamber itself contained gas from the asteroid as well.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has confirmed that the gas collected from the sample container inside the re-entry capsule of the asteroid explorer, Hayabusa2, is a gas sample originating from asteroid Ryugu.

The result of the mass spectrometry of the collected gas within the sample container performed at the QLF (Quick Look Facility) established at the Woomera Local Headquarters in Australia on December 7, 2020, suggested that the gas differed from the atmospheric composition of the Earth. For additional confirmation, a similar analysis was performed on December 10 – 11 at the Extraterrestrial Sample Curation Center on the JAXA Sagamihara Campus. This has led to the conclusion that the gas in the sample container is derived from asteroid Ryugu.

They think that this gas must have outgassed from the samples themselves. I suspect it was released either during the long journey or when the samples were subjected to the high accelerations and impact during its return to Earth. Research is going to have to try to pin this down, however.

They plan to open the two remaining sample chambers containing material sometime next week.

Scientists confirm Hayabusa-2’s return capsule brought back material from Ryugu

Based on their first observations of the return capsule from Hayabusa-1, Japanese scientists yesterday confirmed that it successfully has returned material from the asteroid Ryugu.

JAXA said in a statement that they observed the sandy material at the entrance of the collection chamber, but have yet to look inside to see if more asteroid dust is lurking there. It is only the second time that scientists have returned material from an asteroid.

This find in the entrance portends a gold mine of material in the collection chamber itself.

Hayabusa-2’s samples from Ryugu land in Australia

The return capsule carrying the asteroid samples grabbed by Hayabusa-2 from Ryugu successfully parachuted down in the outback of Australia today.

Officials from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, confirmed shortly after 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT) that the Hayabusa 2’s nearly 16-inch (40-centimeter) sample carrier landed in Australia. Touchdown likely occurred several minutes earlier.

Recovery teams dispatched via helicopter began hunting for the 35-pound (16-kilogram) capsule using estimates of its landing site derived from a radio beacon signal. Mission managers expected it could take several hours to find the capsule and recover it. The landing occurred before dawn in Australia.

Since the article above was posted the capsule was located, and it was found much quicker than first expected.

This was the second sample return mission by the Japanese. The first, Hayabusa-1, successfully returned its capsule in 2010, but because of many technical problems during the mission it only brought back a few microscopic samples. In fact, the technical problems were so bad it was really a miracle the capsule came back at all.

Hayabusa-2 however has been a complete success, showing that they learned from the first mission and applied those lessons to the second.

Meteorite stolen five years ago from Australian museum recovered

A meteorite that was stolen five years ago from a small Australian museum, only two weeks after it was donated to that museum, was recovered by police two days ago.

While the police have returned the meteorite, they have not yet revealed much else.

On Saturday, Queensland Police executed a search warrant at a Cairns address and recovered the space rock, valued at more than $16,000.

Investigations are underway into the incident, and no charges have been laid, but the sisters are pleased the meteorite is back in their possession.

…Police investigating the incident said they were looking into a number of leads relating to the theft. “I believe it definitely has a story to tell,” Senior Constable Heidi Marek said. “I’ll leave it up to detectives to uncover that story but hopefully we’re able to reveal a bit of information down the track.”

That no charges were file is most puzzling. I hope the full story is soon revealed.

Apophis: the asteroid that may someday hit the Earth

Apophis' path past the Earth in 2029
From the conference’s logo.

Last week planetary scientists held a three-day virtual conference focused on the asteroid Apophis, whose orbit regularly places it close to the Earth with a real possibility that it might someday hit the Earth.

When Apophis was originally discovered early in 2004, it wasn’t at first seen as an out-of-the-ordinary asteroid. Not much was known about it other than its albedo and that it was not trivial in size, probably around 1,000 feet in diameter. All this changed in December 2004, when further observations suggested that it had a 2.7% chance of impacting the Earth in 2029, making it the most dangerous asteroid ever discovered.

Fortunately, all subsequent observations of the asteroid have since eliminated any possibility of an impact, at least through the year 2068. Depending on what happens during the 2029 and 2036 fly-bys of Earth, there is a very small chance that it could hit the Earth in 2068, though the data says the chances of that happening are quite small (1 in 150,000).

On April 13, 2029 however Apophis will still zip past the Earth less than 20,000 miles above its surface, well within the orbit of all geosynchronous satellites. For viewers in Europe and Africa it will be a naked eye object, with a magnitude of -3.

Because the date of that close fly-by is so well known, and because this asteroid still poses a threat to the Earth, the planetary science community is very much interested in taking advantage of that close approach. From the conference’s webpage:

Knowledge is the first line of planetary defense, and the 2029 Apophis encounter is a once-per-thousand-year opportunity for investigating an asteroid as large as 350 meters passing within 6 Earth-radii. Time is of the essence as we have less than a decade to plan Earth-based and possible in-situ missions whose measurements can deliver unprecedented detailed knowledge on the physical nature of Apophis as the prototype example (poster child) of potentially hazardous asteroids.

I attended that conference, and am here now to give a summary.
» Read more

Another movie of OSIRIS-REx’s sample-grab-and-go at Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released another movie showing the sample-grab-and-go at Bennu, this time from a different camera.

The movie, made up of 189 images taken over three hours by the spacecraft’s navigation camera NavCam-2, can be seen at the link.

In the middle of the sequence, the spacecraft slews, or rotates, so that NavCam 2 looks away from Bennu, toward space. OSIRIS-REx then performs a final slew to point the camera (and the sampling arm) toward the surface again.

As the spacecraft nears site Nightingale, the sampling arm’s shadow comes into view in the lower part of the frame. Shortly after, the sampling head impacts site Nightingale (just outside the camera’s field of view to the upper right) and fires a nitrogen gas bottle, which mobilizes a substantial amount of the sample site’s material. Several seconds later, the spacecraft performs a back-away burn and the sampling arm’s shadow is visible against the disturbed surface material.

The team continues to investigate what caused the extremely dark areas visible in the upper and middle parts of the frame. The upper area could be the edge of the depression created by the sampling arm, a strong shadow cast by material lofted from the surface, or some combination of the two. Similarly, the middle dark region that first appears in the lower left of the image could be a depression caused by one of the spacecraft thrusters as it fired, a shadow caused by lofted material, or a combination of both.

It strikes me that getting post impact images of Nightingale is essential, if at all possible.

OSIRIS-REx completes storage of Bennu sample

OSIRIS-REx has now completed placing its sample from the asteroid Bennu in the Sample Return Capsule that will bring it back to Earth.

On the afternoon of Oct. 28, following the backout check, the mission team sent commands to disconnect the two mechanical parts on the TAGSAM arm that connect the sampler head to the arm. The spacecraft first cut the tube that carried the nitrogen gas that stirred up the sample through the TAGSAM head during sample collection, and then separated the collector head from the TAGSAM arm itself.

That evening, the spacecraft completed the final step of the sample stowage process –closing the SRC. To secure the capsule, the spacecraft closed the lid and then fastened two internal latches. As of late Oct. 28, the sample of Bennu is safely stored and ready for its journey to Earth.

Because they decided it was better to store the sample immediately and not risk losing it, they were unable to do the spin test that would told them how much sample they obtained. For this reason we will not know the amount until the sample capsule is opened here on Earth, after its return on September 24, ’23.

UPDATE: You can watch if short movie of the Sample Return Capsule closing here.

Meteor over Alaska sets off volcano sensors

A bright fireball meteor that passed over western Alaska on October 15th caused enough disturbance in the atmosphere to set off volcano sensors throughout the region.

The event, which took place on October 15, triggered six of the sensors’ alarms at a new monitoring station on the Kenai Peninsula. The sensors are built to detect low-frequency sound waves in the atmosphere during volcanic activity, but in this case they picked up waves coming from the meteor that had streaked across the sky around 360 miles away.

In a Facebook post, the USGS said the meteor also triggered an alarm at Mount Spurr—a large, active volcano that sits around 80 miles from Anchorage that last erupted in 1992. However, as other monitoring systems also picked up on the waves, “it quickly became clear that this was not activity at Mount Spur,” the post said.

It is ironic, but those sensors, designed to monitor volcano eruptions, have likely also provided scientists some worthwhile data on asteroids.

Hat tip Commander Cobra of Task Force Gryphon

Hayabusa-2’s impactor shook Ryugu

When Hayabusa-2 fired an impactor into the asteroid Ryugu in order to access subsurface material in a sample grab, it apparently shook the asteroid, shifting boulders and rocks as far as 130 feet away.

The artificial impactor disturbed boulders within a 30m radius from the center of the impact crater- providing important insight into asteroids’ resurfacing processes.

Professor ARAKAWA Masahiko (Graduate School of Science, Kobe University, Japan) and members of the Hayabusa2 mission discovered more than 200 boulders ranging from 30cm to 6m in size, which either newly appeared or moved as a result of the artificial impact crater created by Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2’s Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI) on April 5th, 2019. Some boulders were disturbed even in areas as far as 40m from the crater center. The researchers also discovered that the seismic shaking area, in which the surface boulders were shaken and moved an order of cm by the impact, extended about 30m from the crater center. Hayabusa2 recovered a surface sample at the north point of the SCI crater (TD2), and the thickness of ejecta deposits at this site were estimated to be between 1.0mm to 1.8cm using a Digital Elevation Map (DEM).

This data makes all the more important for OSIRIS-REx to get post-sample-grab images of its Nightingale site, if at all possible.

OSIRIS-REx engineers successfully place sample collector in return capsule

Stowing OSIRIS-REx's sample from Bennu
Click for full image.

OSIRIS-REx engineers have successfully placed the sample collector head holding the material captured from the asteroid Bennu in the return capsule that will bring it back to Earth.

Yesterday, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission successfully placed the spacecraft’s sample collector head into its Sample Return Capsule (SRC). The first image shows the collector head hovering over the SRC after the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) arm moved it into the proper position for capture. The second image shows the collector head secured onto the capture ring in the SRC. Both images were captured by the StowCam camera.

Today, after the head was seated into the SRC’s capture ring, the spacecraft performed a “backout check,” which commanded the TAGSAM arm to back out of the capsule. This maneuver is designed to tug on the collector head and ensure that the latches – which keep the collector head in place – are well secured. Following the test, the mission team received telemetry confirming that the head is properly secured in the SRC.

The next step will be to seal the capsule for return to Earth. However, based on the two images above, the sample is now relatively secure, as the opening where material could escape is now held face down in the capsule.

The spacecraft will head back to Earth in March ’21, with the sample capsule landing on Earth on September 24, 2023. I do not know whether it will be possible in the next six months to get new images of the Nightingale touch-and-go site, but have emailed Erin Morton, head of the communications for the science team, and asked. I will update this post when I hear back from her.

New data: The asteroid Psyche is rusting

Using new ultraviolet data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers now believe that the high density asteroid Psyche, thought to be largely metallic, is rusting because of interaction with the solar wind.

Becker observed the asteroid at two specific points in its rotation to view both sides of Psyche completely and delineate as much as possible from observing the surface at ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths.

“We were able to identify for the first time on any asteroid what we think are iron oxide ultraviolet absorption bands,” she said. “This is an indication that oxidation is happening on the asteroid, which could be a result of the solar wind hitting the surface.”

There will be a U.S. probe to Psyche launched in ’22.

OSIRIS-REx sample grab so successful they are losing material

The samples from Bennu
Click for full two frame gif movie.

In a briefing today and press release, the OSIRIS-REx science team announced that they estimate that they have gathered a lot of material from the asteroid Bennu, at least 100s of grams, about twice the minimum of what they hoped to get.

In fact, images of the TAGSAM sample grab equipment suggest that there are some larger rocks lodged in its opening (preventing the flap from closing), and that the small movements they have done to photograph it has caused some of the captured material to escape. The image to the right shows this. You can see floating specks and their shadows (the horizontal streaks) that have escaped. At about 9 o’clock you can see a curve in the contact between a lighter material and blackness to its outside, bending towards the center of the TAGSAM. At other exposures they can clearly see a rock there, distorting the shape and thus preventing the flap from closing properly.

Because of this, they are foregoing the spin maneuver that would have weighed the sample, as well as one engine burst that would have slowed the spacecraft’s movement away from Bennu.

This means they will not know the exact amount captured until the sample gets back to Earth. This is a gamble, but they are confident that they have gotten a lot of material. According to Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator, the sample grab-and-go “got very down” into Bennu, as much as 19 inches. He is also confident that they grabbed more than a 100 grams.

They are therefore going to as quickly as possible store the samples in the Sample Return Capsule for return to Earth, beginning on October 27. They need to do a complex series of steps to make this happen, which is why it cannot happen until then.

One more detail: In their simulations prior to the touch-and-go, they had a range of estimates of how deep the spacecraft would penetrate. According to Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx plunged into Bennu at the softest part of that range, telling them that the asteroid is probably much more loosely packed than expected.

Because they are not doing that last engine burst means that they are moving away from Bennu for good. They will not return to the asteroid. Whether they will be able to get post sample grab images of Nightingale is unknown.

Images taken during OSIRIS-REx sample grab on Bennu

Below is an embed of a short eight second video of OSIRIS-REx’s sample grab yesterday from the surface of Bennu, created from 82 images, and covering at high speed the five minutes of approach, contact, and retreat. If you set the speed rate at 0.25, you can get a better view of the whole sequence of events.

From the science team’s press release,

The spacecraft’s sampling arm – called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – is visible in the lower part of the frame. The round head at the end of TAGSAM is the only part of OSIRIS-REx that contacted the surface during the sample collection event. In the middle of the image sequence, the sampling head positions itself to contact the asteroid’s surface head-on. Shortly after, the sampling head impacts site Nightingale and penetrates Bennu’s regolith. Upon initial contact, the TAGSAM head appears to crush some of the porous rocks underneath it. One second later, the spacecraft fires a nitrogen gas bottle, which mobilizes a substantial amount of the sample site’s material. Preliminary data show the spacecraft spent approximately 5 of the 6 seconds of contact collecting surface material, and the majority of sample collection occurred within the first 3 seconds.

The TAGSAM is designed to catch the agitated surface material, and the mission team will assess the amount of material collected through various spacecraft activities. After touchdown, the spacecraft fired its thrusters to back away from Bennu. As expected, this maneuver also disturbed the Nightingale site, and loose debris is visible near the end of the image sequence. Preliminary telemetry shows the spacecraft remains in good health. The spacecraft was traveling at 0.2 mph (10 cm/sec) when it contacted sample site Nightingale and then backed away at 0.9 mph (40 cm/sec). [emphasis mine]

At the moment it appears they don’t yet know how much sample they have gotten, but they are very optimistic that they have gotten enough, based on the performance above. On October 24th, when they have gotten far enough away from the asteroid, they give the spacecraft a spin to measure its present mass and compare that to a spin done prior to the sample grab. The difference will tell them how much sample they have captured.

They will also be looking at images of TAGSAM over the next few days, which will also indicate what’s been captured.

Sample grab appears to be a success at Bennu

OSIRIS-REx has apparently successfully touched the surface of Bennu, grabbed a sample, and backed away without damage.

The link takes you to my embed of NASA’s live stream, which is mostly pr garbage. However, it is providing live updates from the mission control team, as it happens. Most of time, the NASA people running their pr effort even have the sense to shut up when such updates come it.

Right now we do not know how much of a sample was obtained. It will take some analysis of data and images to find out. They will know by the time of tomorrow’s press conference at 5 pm (Eastern).

Today’s OSIRIS-REx sample grab from Bennu

Nightingale landing site on Bennu
The Nightingale landing site on Bennu, with
OSIRIS-REx superimposed. Click for full image.

Spaceflight Now today published a nicely detailed article summarizing the entire OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu, in anticipation of today’s attempt to grab a sample from that asteroid’s surface.

If you want to understand what is happening today, this article does a nice job of outlining everything.

I have embedded the live stream of the sample grab below the fold. It begins at 5 pm (Eastern) today. Be warned that it will show very little of the actual event, as the spacecraft will not be sending much data back to Earth today, during these operations. All we will really find out is if the grab happened, or was aborted to avoid risks, or occurred but the spacecraft was impacted by flying material during the grab. (Let us hope that this last option does not occur.)

The first images and data will not arrive until tomorrow, to be released during a press conference scheduled for 5 pm (Eastern).
» Read more

NASA announces broadcast schedule for OSIRIS-REx’s sample grab at Bennu

NASA today announced the broadcast schedule that will be available to the public of OSIRIS-REx’s sample grab at the asterod Bennu on October 20, 2020.

Much of the schedule is NASA’s public relations blather, filled with some good information intermixed with a lot of lobbying for the government agency. Much of it will also be the equivalent of watching paint dry, as nothing will be happening quickly.

However, if you wish to watch the important part, tune into NASA TV from 5 to 6:30 p.m on October 20th.

Hosted by Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, and Michelle Thaller, science communicator at Goddard, the broadcast will cover milestones in the last 90 minutes leading up to TAG and spacecraft back-away. It will include perspectives from team members and science leaders about the mission’s challenges and accomplishments.

This will be on the public feed. If you find yourself choking on the NASA hype, you can then switch over to the media feed, which will be “A clean feed of the Mission Support Area during TAG [touch-and-go].”

Regardless, the actual attempt will be heart-stopping, because there is a real chance flying rocks from the asteroid’s surface will hit and damage the spacecraft.

More results about Bennu from OSIRIS-REx

Scientists using the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft have now published a special collection of papers outlining some of their discoveries made during that spacecraft’s observations of the asteroid Bennu from February to October 2019.

These papers just make official much of what was revealed during a conference I attended in November 2019. To sum up the papers:

  • Bennu has a lot of carbonates across its surface.
  • Some of that material came from another object that had to have had water.
  • The asteroid’s boulders come in two types, dark-porous and bright-solid, with the latter likely from that water-bearing other asteroid
  • Bennu’s surface is fresh, only recently exposed to space, including the sample site Nightingale.
  • Bennu’s interior has large voids, and its equatorial region is less dense.

The discovery of carbonates, produced from the interaction of water and carbon dioxide, is a big deal. As Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator, explained at that November conference, “To me this is one of the most exciting results from the conference.”

These findings have allowed scientists to theorize that Bennu’s parent asteroid likely had an extensive hydrothermal system, where water interacted with and altered the rock on Bennu’s parent body. Although the parent body was destroyed long ago, we’re seeing evidence of what that watery asteroid once looked like here – in its remaining fragments that make up Bennu. Some of these carbonate veins in Bennu’s boulders measure up to a few feet long and several inches thick, validating that an asteroid-scale hydrothermal system of water was present on Bennu’s parent body.

The material could not have been created on Bennu itself, which means it formed on a different object that was large enough and existed long enough to create the veins in these boulders. That material was then flung back into space to settle onto Bennu’s surface.

The freshness of Bennu’s surface is also a big deal, as it means that etither the asteroid is not that old, or that its surface somehow gets plowed over periodically. It also means that when OSIRIS-REx grabs samples at the Nightingale site on October 20th, they will be grabbing material that has not been altered much by the harsh environment of space.

Finally, the data about Bennu’s interior and density is maybe the neatest discovery. As the press release notes,

The reconstructed gravity field shows that the interior of Bennu is not uniform. Instead, there are pockets of higher and lower density material inside the asteroid. It’s as if there is a void at its center, within which you could fit a couple of football fields. In addition, the bulge at Bennu’s equator is under-dense, suggesting that Bennu’s rotation is lofting this material.

Bennu’s very weak gravity makes it a very alien and hard-to-comprehend place. It appears that the gravel in this floating gravel pile is barely held together, some interlocking in a way that leaves many open gaps, with other pieces pulled outward by the spin of the asteroid.

In reading these results, my first impression was an overwhelming sense of time and its inconceivable vastness. Much of Bennu’s most primitive material comes from the early solar system, about six billion years ago. Other material is newer, but required many many millions of years to get created elsewhere, and then somehow end up in space to be captured by this asteroid.

A million years is a very long time. A billion years is a thousand times longer. To conceive such time frames and all that can happen during that time is practically impossible. Bennu has shown us just a hint of how much can happen, some of which we would never have imagined otherwise.

OSIRIS-REx team confirms date for sample grab from Bennu

Nightingale landing site on Bennu
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has confirmed October 20, 2020 as the date the spacecraft will attempt a sample grab from the asteroid Bennu.

OSIRIS-REx is charged with collecting at least 2 oz. (60 grams) of Bennu’s rocky material to deliver back to Earth – the largest sample return from space since the Apollo program – and the mission developed two methods to verify that this sample collection occurred. On Oct. 22, OSIRIS-REx’s SamCam camera will capture images of the TAGSAM head to see whether it contains Bennu’s surface material. The spacecraft will also perform a spin maneuver on Oct. 24 to determine the mass of collected material. If these measures show successful collection, the decision will be made to place the sample in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) for return to Earth. If sufficient sample has not been collected from [the primary landing site] Nightingale, the spacecraft has onboard nitrogen charges for two more attempts. A TAG attempt at the back-up Osprey site would be made no earlier than January 2021.

The press release at the link provides a lot of technical and interesting details about the sample-grab-and-go attempt, expected to put the spacecraft in contact with the asteroid’s surface for no more than sixteen seconds.

The maneuver itself is quite risky, as the available smooth landing area, as shown in the image above, is only half the size the equipment was designed for, and surrounded by large boulders.

Ryugu, like Bennu, appears to have rocks from other asteroids

Japanese scientists today announced that 21 rocks identified by Hayabusa-2 on the asteroid Ryugu have a composition that suggests they were formed on another asteroid.

Although Ryugu’s surface is uniformly dark [because it is a C-type asteroid], the scientists behind the new research found numerous boulders scattered across the asteroid that were 1.5 or more times brighter than their surroundings — that is, they reflected at least 50% more light than most of the rest of Ryugu. This contrast made the researchers suspect these boulders may have come from outside the asteroid.

By analyzing the spectrum of light reflected off 21 of these boulders, the scientists deduced they were made of minerals known as anhydrous silicates. Prior studies have suggested that such water-poor, silicon-rich rocks make up silicaceous or S-type asteroids, the most common kind of asteroid found in the inner main asteroid belt. The brightness of these boulders also matches the brightness of S-type asteroids.

This result compliments the result yesterday from scientists studying Bennu with OSIRIS-REx, and was in fact released at the same time. Both asteroids apparently contain material from other asteroids, suggesting that asteroids in their initial formation (as rubble piles) are routinely a mixture of material from many asteroids, thrown out during impacts and then recaptured.

Rocks from Vesta on Bennu?

Scientists reviewing data of Bennu from OSIRIS-REx have found six very bright boulders that have a make-up similar to that found on Vesta, which suggests they initially came from that asteroid.

The unusual boulders on Bennu first caught the team’s eye in images from the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite. They appeared extremely bright, with some almost ten times brighter than their surroundings. They analyzed the light from the boulders using the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer instrument to get clues to their composition. … The signature from the boulders was characteristic of the mineral pyroxene, similar to what is seen on Vesta and the vestoids, smaller asteroids that are fragments blasted from Vesta when it sustained significant asteroid impacts.

Of course it’s possible that the boulders actually formed on Bennu’s parent asteroid, but the team thinks this is unlikely based on how pyroxene typically forms. The mineral typically forms when rocky material melts at high-temperature. However, most of Bennu is composed of rocks containing water-bearing minerals, so it (and its parent) couldn’t have experienced very high temperatures. Next, the team considered localized heating, perhaps from an impact. An impact needed to melt enough material to create large pyroxene boulders would be so significant that it would have destroyed Bennu’s parent-body. So, the team ruled out these scenarios, and instead considered other pyroxene-rich asteroids that might have implanted this material to Bennu or its parent.

The make-up of Vesta matches. While these rocks might have been flung from Vesta during an impact there, eventually to settle on the surface of Bennu, Vesta is not the only possibility. We do not have a good census of the asteroids in the solar system. Others whose make-up is not yet determined could be a source, as well as an asteroid that no longer exists, destroyed by a collision long ago.

Regardless, these rocks confirm that in the process of formation in the early days of the solar system, asteroids of all types exchanged material.

Japan chooses Hayabusa-2’s next asteroid target

The new colonial movement: It appears that Japan has chosen the next asteroid that its probe Hayabusa-2 will visit in 2031, after it releases its samples to Earth in December from Ryugu.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 space explorer will aim to probe the asteroid “1998KY26” located between the orbits of Earth and Mars in 2031 after completing its current mission of collecting samples from another asteroid, the country’s science minister said Tuesday.

It is hoped Hayabusa2 will approach the ball-shaped asteroid, which has a diameter of around 30 meters and rotates about every 10 minutes, in July 2031, Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Koichi Hagiuda said.

It will not obtain samples from this second asteroid, only observe it close up by camera.

Bennu tosses particles from its surface routinely

Objects ejected from Bennu
Tracked particles after August 28, 2019 ejection event.

During OSIRIS-REx’s more than twenty months flying close to the Bennu, scientists have found that the asteroid routinely kicks particles from its surface into space, with these events linked to the asteroid’s day-night cycle.

Since arrival the scientists have seen and tracked more than 300 ejection events, with the almost seven hundred objects detected ranging from about an eighth to a half inch in size. Most moved about eight inches per second, comparable to “a beetle scurrying across the ground.”

The image to the right, cropped, reduced, and brightened to post here, comes from the introductory paper of a suite of papers on the subject, published today.

The timing of the events however reveals the most.

As Bennu completes one rotation every 4.3 hours, boulders on its surface are exposed to a constant thermo-cycling as they heat during the day and cool during the night. Over time, the rocks crack and break down, and eventually particles may be thrown from the surface. The fact that particle ejections were observed with greater frequency during late afternoon, when the rocks heat up, suggests thermal cracking is a major driver. The timing of the events is also consistent with the timing of meteoroid impacts, indicating that these small impacts could be throwing material from the surface. Either, or both, of these processes could be driving the particle ejections, and because of the asteroid’s microgravity environment, it doesn’t take much energy to launch an object from Bennu’s surface.

The link includes a cool movie showing the ejections events and the tracked paths of the ejected particles.

What OSIRIS-REx will grab from the asteroid Bennu in October

Closest view of Nightingale taken by OSIRIS-REx

On August 11th the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx did a sample grab-and-go rehearsal that put the spacecraft as close as 135 feet from the asteroid Bennu. During the rehearsal the spacecraft’s mapping camera (MapCam) snapped 22 images of the approach, showing the landing site, dubbed Nightingale, at the highest resolution yet.

From those images the science team created a movie. To the right is the closest image from that movie, lightened slightly and reduced to post here. It gives us the best view of the Nightingale landing site we will have prior to the October sample grab.

In essence, we are looking at the material that OSIRIS-REx will grab, though which particular rocks will be grabbed from this gravel pile are of course unknown. The spacecraft’s equipment is designed to capture pebbles smaller than 0.8 inches across. There are a good number of such rocks here, interspersed with a lot of larger rocks, including the several more than a foot across.

As I have noted previously, this landing site is about half the diameter of the landing sites the spacecraft was designed to touch down on. The rehearsal however gives us strong hope that OSIRIS-REx will be able to hit the bullseye. See this second movie, which shows the approach from two different cameras, with a wider context image provided to show how the spacecraft successfully hones in on its target.

Movie of OSIRIS-REx’s last rehearsal before sample grab

Closest point to Nighingale landing site during OSIRIS-REx's last rehearsal
Click image for full movie.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a movie made by the spacecraft’s navigation camera during its August 11th final rehearsal prior to the planned sample grab-and-go now set for October.

The image to the right is a capture of one image when the spacecraft was closest to the asteroid, about 131 feet above the surface. The target landing site, dubbed Nightingale, is the somewhat smooth area near the top half of the frame.

These images were captured over a three-hour period – the imaging sequence begins approximately one hour after the orbit departure maneuver and ends approximately two minutes after the back-away burn. In the middle of the sequence, the spacecraft slews, or rotates, so that NavCam 2 looks away from Bennu, toward space. Shortly after, it performs a final slew to point the camera (and the sampling arm) toward the surface again. Near the end of the sequence, site Nightingale comes into view at the top of the frame. The large, tall boulder situated on the crater’s rim (upper left) is 43 feet (13 meters) on its longest axis. The sequence was created using nearly 300 images taken by the spacecraft’s NavCam 2 camera.

Nightingale might be their best choice, but it remains about half the size they had originally wanted for their grab-and-go site, with far too many objects larger than planned. They designed the grab-and-go equipment to catch objects smaller than 0.8 inches. Little at this location, or on the entire surface of Bennu, is that small. The asteroid is truly a pile of gravel, with no dust.

Tiny asteroid sets record for closest fly-by of Earth

Astronomers using the robotic Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory in California on August 16 spotted a tiny asteroid just after it had zipped past the Earth at a distance of only 1,830 miles, the closest any asteroid has ever been seen to do so without hitting the ground.

Asteroid 2020 QG is about 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) across, or roughly the size of an SUV, so it was not big enough to do any damage even if it had been pointed at Earth; instead, it would have burned up in our planet’s atmosphere.

“The asteroid flew close enough to Earth that Earth’s gravity significantly changed its orbit,” says ZTF co-investigator Tom Prince, the Ira S. Bowen Professor of Physics at Caltech and a senior research scientist at JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA. Asteroids of this size that fly roughly as close to Earth as 2020 QG do occur about once a year or less, but many of them are never detected.

The ability to spot these things is continuing to improve, though it does not appear they have yet obtained enough information to predict 2020 QG’s full orbit, or when or if it will return.

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