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From The Editors Science

NASA Mobilizes Eleven US Companies to Develop Lunar Lander Prototypes

In a bid to expedite its ambitious Artemis moon program, NASA has shortlisted eleven US companies, including the likes of Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada, to research, design and develop lunar lander prototypes capable of landing humans on the lunar surface, the agency announced in a May 17 press release.

As part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), NASA is awarding a combined amount of more than $45 million to these companies.

However, since NextSTEP is a public/private partnership program, the companies will have to shell out twenty percent of the overall project cost from their own coffers, which would not only reduce the taxpayer’s burden but also attract private investment in the potentially lucrative lunar business.

“To accelerate our return to the Moon, we are challenging our traditional ways of doing business,” Marshall Smith, director for human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters, said in the press release.

“We will streamline everything from procurement to partnerships to hardware development and even operations,” he added.

“Our team is excited to get back to the Moon quickly as possible, and our public/private partnerships to study human landing systems are an important step in that process,” he also said.

Since time is of the essence to NASA, it is putting into effect what it calls “undefinitized contract actions,” which essentially means the awardees will be paid in advance to start part of the work even before a final contract is agreed upon and signed.

“We’re taking major steps to begin development as quickly as possible, including invoking a NextSTEP option that allows our partners to begin work while we’re still negotiating,” Greg Chavers – human landing system formulation manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama – said in the release.

“We’re keen to collect early industry feedback about our human landing system requirements, and the undefinitized contract action will help us do that,” he added.

While NASA has not provided any design specifications to the awardees, it does plan to issue a “formal solicitation” this summer, laying down its requirements for the lunar lander.

It will then be up to the awardees to “propose innovative concepts, hardware development and integration.”

“This new approach doesn’t prescribe a specific design or number of elements for the human landing system,” Chavers said.

“NASA needs the system to get our astronauts on the surface and return them home safely, and we’re leaving a lot of the specifics to our commercial partners.”

Since the lunar lander will be based on three main elements – transfer, descent and refueling – each partner has been assigned specific areas to work on.

Here’s a list of the eleven awardees and their areas of responsibility

  1. Aerojet Rocketdyne – Canoga Park, California: One transfer vehicle study
  2. Blue Origin – Kent, Washington: One descent element study, one transfer vehicle study, and one transfer vehicle prototype
  3. Boeing – Houston: One descent element study, two descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
  4. Dynetics – Huntsville, Alabama: One descent element study and five descent element prototypes
  5. Lockheed Martin – Littleton, Colorado: One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, and one refueling element study
  6. Masten Space Systems – Mojave, California: One descent element prototype
  7. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems – Dulles, Virginia: One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
  8. OrbitBeyond – Edison, New Jersey: Two refueling element prototypes
  9. Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colorado, and Madison, Wisconsin: One descent element study, one descent element prototype, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, and one refueling element study
  10. SpaceX – Hawthorne, California: One descent element study
  11. SSL – Palo Alto, California: One refueling element study and one refueling element prototype

Earlier this week, in a bid to arouse public interest in its ‘Moon2024′ mission, NASA released a video trailer, voiced-over by none other than William Shatner – the man most of us know as Captain Kirk, from Star Trek.

The short clip highlights the agency’s trailblazing Apollo success five decades ago; the challenges faced in cutting through the fictions of science then; and the challenges ahead as it works toward putting humans back on the moon by as early as 2024 – this time, to stay.

“Our charge is to go quickly, and to stay, to press our collective efforts forward with a fervor that will see us return to the moon in a manner that is wholly different than 50 years ago,” Shatner narrates.

“Our greatest adventures remain ahead of us. We are going.”

The video came on the heels of Monday’s christening of the mission, which the agency has decided to name ‘Artemis,’ the Greek mythology goddess of the moon and the twin sister of Apollo, after whom the lunar missions of the sixties and seventies were named.

It was definitely not a random choice, considering the agency’s plan to put the first woman on the lunar surface as part of the Moon2024 mission, or should we say the Artemis mission.

So important is the Moon2024 mission to the Trump administration that it has proposed a revised 2020 budget, seeking a further $1.6 billion to add to NASA’s $21 billion 2020 budget request.

The additional funding would go towards accelerating the program to meet the 2024 deadline for the mission, which was earlier planned for 2028.

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From The Editors Science

NASA‘s New Hype Video “We are Going” is Meant to Pique Public Interest in its Moon2024 Mission

In a bid to arouse public interest in its ‘Moon2024′ mission, NASA on Tuesday (May 15) released a video trailer, voiced-over by none other than William Shatner – the man most of us know as Captain Kirk, from Star Trek.

The 3 min 49-second clip highlights the agency’s trailblazing Apollo success five decades ago; the challenges faced in cutting through the fictions of science then; and the challenges ahead as it works toward putting humans back on the moon by as early as 2024 – this time, to stay.

“Our charge is to go quickly, and to stay, to press our collective efforts forward with a fervor that will see us return to the moon in a manner that is wholly different than 50 years ago,” Shatner narrates.

“Our greatest adventures remain ahead of us. We are going.”

The video comes close behind Monday’s christening of the mission, which the agency has decided to name ‘Artemis,’ the Greek mythology goddess of the moon and the twin sister of Apollo, after whom the lunar missions of the sixties and seventies were named; how can we forget!

The choice of name was certainly not arbitrary, considering the agency’s plan to put the first woman on the lunar surface as part of the Moon2024 mission.

So important is the Moon2024 mission to the Trump administration that it has proposed a revised 2020 budget, seeking a further $1.6 billion to add to NASA’s $21 billion 2020 budget request.

The additional funding would go towards accelerating the program to meet the 2024 deadline for the mission, which was earlier planned for 2018.

“Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars,” Trump bragged in a Monday tweet, adding: “I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!”

In Dec 2017, Trump signed a momentous order, the “Space Policy Directive – 1,” authorizing NASA to send American astronauts to the moon again.

“The directive I am signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” he said, adding: “It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 for the long-term exploration and use.”

He also said:

“This time we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and, perhaps, someday to many worlds beyond.

“This directive will ensure America’s space program once again leads and inspires all of humanity.”

The presidential decree didn’t come as a surprise, as both the President and Pence had been talking about sending American astronauts back on a moon mission since their campaign days in 2016.

At a campaign event near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Trump had spoken about paving the way for NASA to “refocus on space exploration” rather than being restricted to serve “ primarily as a logistical agency for low Earth-orbit activities.”

Then, during the first NSC meeting in October 2017, US Vice President Mike Pence said that the Trump administration was committed to the moon mission and beyond.

It must be said that the directive was well-timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of Apollo 17, the last of NASA’s six manned missions to the moon.

Similar promises were made by three former presidents but political and financial challenges associated with deep space exploration had derailed their plans.

The Trump government’s space plans is not just restricted to sending manned missions to the moon and beyond; it is also serious about launching a space warfare service branch – the United States Space Force (USSF) – which will become the sixth branch of the US Armed Forces, if only the president could get Congress to see through his eyes.

“Separate but equal” is the phrase Trump used to compare Space Force with the Air Force, speaking about it in a June 2018 NSC (National Space Council) meeting.

Pence, on his part, described Space Force as “an idea whose time has come” in a Pentagon address in August last year.

“The next generation of Americans to confront the emerging threats in the boundless expanse of space will be wearing the uniform of the United States of America,” he said, going on to add that the ball was now in the Congress court for establishing and funding the mammoth project.

“Now the time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of our armed forces, to prepare for the next battlefield where America’s best and bravest will be called to deter and defeat a new generation of threats to our people, to our nation,” he also said.

Trump has already set the ball rolling by signing a directive –Space Policy Directive 4 (SPD-4) – in March this year, ordering the Department of Defense (DoD) to draft legislation for Congress to make Space Force a reality.

“America must be fully equipped to defend our vital interests. Our adversaries are training forces and developing technology to undermine our security in space, and they’re working very hard at that,” the president told reporters at the White House.

As for the funding, the government is requesting $14.1billion in its 2020 budget proposal for investing in space operations, a key part of which is the first allocation of $72 million to establish a Space Force headquarters.

As brilliant as the idea of having a dedicated military branch to secure the infinite deeps of space may seem to a lot of people, it is definitely not without its fair share of detractors.

Critics and naysayers, including National security specialists and US Armed Forces officials, have openly voiced their concerns against the creation of such an entity.

Their argument is based on the premise that creating a separate force for space-related activities of the US Armed Forces would encroach on the domain of the US Air Force Space Command, which currently manages that particular area of the nation’s security concerns.

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From The Editors Science

NASA Says the Moon is Shrivelling Up like a Raisin, Causing Moonquakes in the Process

Scientists have known for the last decade, or so, that the moon has shrunk by at least 150 feet (50 meters) over the last several hundred million years as its interior kept losing heat.

Giving the analogy of a shrinking and wrinkling grape as it transforms into a raisin, NASA says that the moon also shrank and wrinkled up as it cooled down.

However, owing to the fact that the lunar crust is brittle, unlike the supple exterior of a grape, it broke up, creating “thrust faults” where sections of the crust got pushed up over adjacent parts.

A team of researchers analyzing new images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft has found evidence that suggests the moon is continuing to shrink even today, causing thrust faults which, in turn, produce moonquakes as they slip.

“Our analysis gives the first evidence that these faults are still active and likely producing moonquakes today as the Moon continues to gradually cool and shrink,” said Thomas Watters, a senior scientist at the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, and the lead author of the research, published Monday (May 14) in Nature Geoscience.

“Some of these quakes can be fairly strong, around five on the Richter scale,” Watters added.

The new research was based on seismic data from the 1960s and 70s, recorded by four out of five seismometers left on the lunar surface by astronauts during Apollo missions  11, 12, 14, 15, and 16.

Barring the Apollo 11 seismometer, which lasted a mere three weeks, the remaining four registered a total of 28 shallow moonquakes, ranging from two to five on the Richter scale, between 1969 and 1977.

Using an algorithm, Watters and his team were able to get a better estimate of the location and epicenter of the quakes.

The new location-estimates revealed that 8 of the 28 quakes were not more than 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the thrust faults seen in lunar images, which led them to “tentatively” conclude that the quakes were caused by fault slips.

The researchers also noticed that six of the eight quakes occurred when the moon was at or approaching its apogee, the farthest point in its orbit around Earth, where tidal stress from Earth’s gravity is at peak levels, making the thrust faults more prone to “slip-events.”

To give more veracity to their conclusion, the researchers ran 10,000 simulations to determine whether so many quakes near the faults at the time of maximum stress could be a coincidence, only to discover that it was less than a four percent probability.

The possibility of meteoroid impacts causing the quakes was also ruled out because their seismic signature is different from that of quakes caused by slipping faults.

“We think it’s very likely that these eight quakes were produced by faults slipping as stress built up when the lunar crust was compressed by global contraction and tidal forces, indicating that the Apollo seismometers recorded the shrinking Moon and the Moon is still tectonically active,” said Watters.

Further evidence of the faults being active comes from high-definition images from the camera onboard the LRO, which has photographed more than 3,500 fault scarps – step-like cliffs on the lunar surface that are generally tens of meters high and can extend for several kilometers.

A number of these images show boulders and landslides at the bottom of the fault scarp slopes or nearby areas, which are relatively brighter than the rest of the surroundings, indicating freshly exposed patches that have not been darkened by solar and space radiation.

Now, that could most likely be the result of moonquakes sending debris down the slopes of the fault scarps.

Further confirmation that these are recent lunar events comes from some of the other LROC images that show tracks made by boulders rolling down a scarp slope during a moonquake caused by slipping faults.

Had the tracks not been recent enough, they would have been obliterated pretty quickly, geologically speaking, by constant micrometeoroid bombardment that the lunar surface is exposed to.

Faults in the Schrödinger basin of the moon show boulder tracks that scientists say are the result of recent boulder falls caused by seismic activity.

Here’s what LRO project scientist John Keller of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, had to say about the latest findings.

“It’s really remarkable to see how data from nearly 50 years ago and from the LRO mission has been combined to advance our understanding of the Moon while suggesting where future missions intent on studying the Moon’s interior processes should go.”

With a decade’s worth of LRO images at their disposal, Watters and his team are of the opinion that comparing images of specific fault areas from different times may provide more proof of recent moonquakes.

Study co-author Renee Weber, a planetary seismologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, says that more seismometers should be put on the moon for a better insight into lunar events.

“Establishing a new network of seismometers on the lunar surface should be a priority for human exploration of the Moon, both to learn more about the Moon’s interior and to determine how much of a hazard moonquakes present,” he said.

The Team

Thomas R. Watters (lead author) – Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA

Renee C. Weber (co-author) – NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, USA

Geoffrey C. Collins (co-author) – Physics and Astronomy Department, Wheaton College, Norton, MA, USA

Ian J. Howley (co-author) – NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, USA

Nicholas C. Schmerr (co-author) – the University of Maryland, Department of Geology, College Park, MD, USA

Catherine L. Johnson (co-author) – Dept. of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

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From The Editors Science

Threat From Asteroid Strikes is Not Only about Movies; It’s for Real, Says NASA Chief

In his keynote address at the 2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Maryland, USA, on Monday (April 29), NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine warned that the threat to Earth from asteroid strikes was as real as it gets.

He urged the international space community to create awareness among people that devastation from asteroid strikes was not only about what Hollywood shows us but about defending Earth – the only habitat we know of.

“We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies,” Bridenstine was quoted by Space.com as having said at the conference.

“This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth,” said the NASA head.

As part of the  “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan” announced in June last year, this gathering of NASA, FEMA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the International Asteroid Warning Network representatives, among others, will conclude on May 3.

The five-day event will see the participants conduct an “asteroid impact exercise,” playing out mock impact scenarios to enhance preparedness for the real thing if, or should we say when, it does happen.

Asteroid expert Andrew Rivkin – a planetary astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, told NBC News MACH in an email that “exercises like this have been run at several conferences over the years, and government agencies have also ​had them.”

“It’s definitely worth doing, if only so people are aware of the issues and how complex some of them are,” he wrote.

Comparing the exercise to a fire drill, Rivkin said that the aftermath of a major asteroid hit would be catastrophic if what happened to the dinosaurs is anything to go by.

He was, obviously, referring to the six-mile-wide asteroid that hit our planet some 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs from the face of the Earth – or, so it is believed.

But. we need not end up like the dinosaurs, or the other species that went with them, because we have the necessary resources at our disposal; we just have to make the most of them.

“We know for a fact that the dinosaurs did not have a space program. But we do, and we need to use it,” Bridenstine said.

But, why go so far back in time to emphasize the threat we’re exposed to, when the recent Chelyabinsk Event is scary enough to justify all the good things, including the ongoing conference, being done to minimize the probabilities of a repeat.

The 66-foot-wide supersonic meteor smashed into the atmosphere above the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, sending shockwaves so powerful that at least 1,500 people were injured and more than 7,000 buildings in six cities were damaged.

“I wish I could tell you that these events are exceptionally unique, but they are not,” Bridenstine said about the Chelyabinsk Event.

“These events are not rare — they happen. It’s up to us to make sure that we are characterizing, detecting, tracking all of the near-Earth objects that could be a threat to the world,” he added.

The aforementioned Federal ‘preparedness strategy and action plan’ notwithstanding, there’s a lot that still needs to be done in terms of increased monitoring systems across the globe, for which international cooperation is the need of the hour, says Bridenstine.

“We’re only about a third of the way there,” he said, adding: “We want more international partners that can join us in this effort.

“We want more systems on the face of the Earth that can detect and track these objects, and we want to be able to feed all of that data into one single operating system so that ultimately, we have the best, most accurate data that we can possibly get.”

NASA knows that merely chasing these potential threats is not going to save Earth from another mass extinction and, probably, thousands of years of ice-age, should one of them slam into us.

The good news is that the agency has been working on a planetary-defense mission called DART, an acronym for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, to save us from exactly such an eventuality.

DART is essentially an impactor spacecraft that NASA plans to crash into an asteroid satellite at 13,500 miles per hour in an effort to change its course.

The idea is to find out how much the car-sized impactor can change the trajectory of the target space rock and whether it’s enough to redirect an Earth-bound asteroid safely away from us.

The space rock that NASA has in its crosshairs for the planned Oct 2022 hit is, in fact, a satellite moonlet nicknamed Didymoon, about seven million miles away from Earth.

Measuring 150 meters across, the moonlet orbits an 800-meter-wide asteroid called Didymos, from where it derives its nickname.

While Didymoon is not on a collision course with Earth and poses no threat to us whatsoever, a detailed study of the space object, and then slamming into it to bump it off its bearings, should provide the DART team with useful data that can come in handy in averting a real asteroid threat, if ever it came to that.

Not only will ground telescopes track the new course of the twin objects post-impact, but an Italian Space Agency CubeSat called ‘Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids’ will accompany the mission to keep an eye on proceedings.

Additionally, as part of an international Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch two CubeSats, APEX (Asteroid Prospection Explorer) and Juventas, onboard the agency’s Hera spacecraft, in time to reach the binary asteroid system sometime in 2026 to record the effects of the DART collision, according to NASA.

To test potential techniques in “deflecting” an asteroid – one of the preferred methods for mitigating a threat – DART will travel to the Didymos binary asteroid system via its a xenon-based electric propulsion system, steering with an onboard camera and sophisticated autonomous navigation software,” says NASA.

DART is expected to send back a close-up shot of the Didymoon surface – its last transmission to Earth – just before it is pulverized into space dust.

For any Solar System body to qualify as a near-Earth object, its closest approach to the Sun has to be less than 1.3 astronomical units (AU), the equivalent of nearly 121 million miles.

Among the 20,000 near-Earth asteroids and comets orbiting the Sun is a 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu, which has a 1-in-2,700 chance of smashing into Earth sometime between 2175 and 2196, say scientists.

The potentially hazardous object (PHO), “listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale,” is currently 54 million miles from Earth.

For all we know, Bennu might just turn out be the asteroid that NASA has to knock off-course to save the planet in the future; that’s when the knowledge gained from the DART mission will come in handy – unless the 500-meter rock, or some other NEO, hits us sooner.

Honestly, that’s unlikely, but time will tell.

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From The Editors Science

Should Pluto’s Planet Status Be Reinstated? The Debate Still Rages in the Astronomical Community

Pluto, the icy body in the outer reaches of the solar system, was considered the ninth planet in the system from the time it was discovered in 1930 up until 2006, when it was controversially reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – the global authority for naming and designating celestial objects.

The IAU has since been at the receiving end by many scientists and astronomers who disagree with the union’s decision and have fiercely advocated for Pluto’s planetary status to be reinstated.

The contentious decision was based on the definition of a planet, which many scientists argue has been inconsistently applied in the case of Pluto.

In a scientific paper published in the journal Icarus in September last year, a group of scientists, led by the study’s main author Philip Metzger – a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida – maintain that the IAU’s definition of a planet is not in the interest of science and, hence, should be revisited.

“What we’re doing is fact-checking,” Metzger, was quoted by NBC News as having said.

“There are 120 examples I found of scientists in the recently published literature violating the IAU definition, calling something a planet even though the IAU definition says it’s not a planet,” he said.

“The reason planetary scientists do this is because the IAU definition is not useful for science,” Metzger added.

Pluto’s planetary status came into question in 2005 when astronomers at the California Institute of Astronomy (Caltech) –  a private doctorate-granting research university in Pasadena, California – discovered a Pluto-like celestial object in the distant solar system.

The object, which came to be known as Eres, was touted as a new addition to the planetary line-up at the time, but when more such objects were discovered in the Kuiper-belt neighborhood, the astronomical community was in a quandary over the definition of a planet.

Several definitions were considered and reconsidered before IAU called a press conference in Prague, in 2006, to give a new meaning to the term “planet,” thereby stripping Pluto of its planetary status and downgrading it to a “dwarf planet.”

The new resolution stated that in order for a solar system object in to qualify as a planet, it needed to meet three conditions:

  • It has to orbit the sun
  • It has to be rounded by its own gravity, for which it has to be large enough to allow its gravitation pull to shape it into a sphere
  • It has to be pretty much the only object in its orbit, meaning it has to be gravitationally dominant-enough to have evicted most objects in its orbital vicinity.

While Pluto meets the first two criteria hands down, it falls short of qualifying as a planet when it comes to the third condition, because its orbit is littered with other icy bodies exerting their own gravitational forces.

Although thirteen years have passed since that eventful September day when Pluto ceased to be a planet and became a “dwarf planet,” the debate over the controversial definition and Pluto’s standing in the planetary hierarchy still rages on in the astronomical community.

NASA’s principal investigator for New Horizons mission to Pluto, Alan Stern, and other like-minded scientists have rubbished the revised definition, saying that it is flawed and needs to be reversed.

Writing in The Washington Post in May 2018, Stern and co-author of the article, David Grinspoon – an American astrobiologist and senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona – stated that the IAU’s definition of a planet was “deeply flawed.”

“The process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome,” wrote Stern and Grinspoon.

“For one thing, it defines a planet as an object orbiting around our sun — thereby disqualifying the planets around other stars, ignoring the exoplanet revolution, and decreeing that essentially all the planets in the universe are not, in fact, planets,” they said.

“To add insult to injury, they amended their convoluted definition with the vindictive and linguistically paradoxical statement that “a dwarf planet is not a planet.” This seemingly served no purpose but to satisfy those motivated by a desire — for whatever reason — to ensure that Pluto was “demoted” by the new definition,” they wrote.

In fact, Stern was scheduled to debate Ron Ekers – former IAU president (2003 to 2006) – at the Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club on the definition of a planet and Pluto’s classification in our solar system in Washington, DC, on Monday.

Kuiper Belt

Kuiper Belt is the ring-shaped accumulation of matter made up gas, dust, planetesimals, asteroids, or collision debris – also known as the circumstellar disk – in the far reaches of the solar system.

It is home to three known dwarf planets, including Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake, in addition to other icy objects.

Ultima Thule is the latest Kuiper Belt object (KBO), which NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by as recently as New Year’s Day this year.

When it was thirty-three minutes past midnight in New York; when the ball had already dropped in Times Square to usher in 2019; when parties were in full swing across the city; history was made four billion miles out in space.

Technically, history happened in the blink of an eye, as NASA spacecraft New Horizons zipped past the tiny KBO at a lusty speed of 32,280 miles per hour – that’s 9 miles in a second, to put things in perspective.

However, confirmation of the historic flyby came only after an agonizing wait of six hours and eight minutes – that’s how long it took the radio signal from the robotic craft to travel through the void of space before it was plucked from the air by a NASA deep space radio dish in Madrid.

Coming back to the Pluto debate, Stern and Grinspoon summed it up extremely well when they wrote:

“The word “planet” predates and transcends science. Language is malleable and responsive to culture. Words are not defined by voting. Neither is scientific paradigm.”

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From The Editors Science

Citizen Scientists Find “Super Earth” in Habitable Zone of Binary Star System 226 Lightyears Away

Two NASA interns and a team of amateur astronomers have discovered a new exoplanet roughly twice the size of Earth while gleaning through data captured by the U.S. space agency’s now-defunct Kepler space telescope.

Although the so-called “Super Earth” was first spotted by the “citizen scientists,” using information gathered by the Kepler space telescope during Campaign 4 of its extended K2 “Second Light” mission back in 2015, the data was discarded as unreliable due to issues with two of Kepler’s reaction wheels.

The same team analyzed the Campaign 4 data a second time and uploaded the re-processed information on Exoplanet Explorers – a new Zooniverse project open to public searches of Kepler’s K2 observations to locate new transiting planets – in 2017.

To cut a long story short, mistakes were made but follow-up observations, using data from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, NASA’s Infrared Telescope – also in Hawaii, the agency’s Spitzer Space Telescope, and European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Gaia space observatory, allowed the team to confirm the existence of K2-288Bb at the 233rd American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle on January 7, 2019.

“It’s a very exciting discovery due to how it was found, its temperate orbit and because planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon,” said Adina Feinstein, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Illinois, and the lead author of the study paper due to be published in The Astronomical Journal.

“It took the keen eyes of citizen scientists to make this extremely valuable find and point us to it,” Feinstein said.

Officially known as K2-288Bb, the exoplanet is possibly a rocky, or a gas-rich planet along the lines of Neptune.

It is located in the habitable zone, also known as “Goldilocks’ zone,” of a binary star system of the same name minus the suffix “b” in the constellation Taurus some 226 lightyears away from Earth.

The binary stellar system K2-288B, which K2-288Bb is a part of, contains two dim stars about 5.1 billion miles (8.2 billion kilometers) apart.

The larger and brighter of the two stars is about half the mass and size of our own Sun, while its stellar companion is about one-third of our Sun’s mass and girth.

However, it’s the lesser of the two stars that K2-288Bb orbits once every 31.3 Earth-days.

Exoplanets

Simply put, an exoplanet is a planet that does not orbit our Sun but belongs to a different planetary system and orbits the star (sun) of that particular system.

They are also referred to as extrasolar planets; aptly so because they’re not part of our Solar System.

An exoplanet is named after the star of the system to which it belongs with a lower case letter added to the name as a suffix.

The first exoplanet discovered in the system gets the suffix ‘b’, with subsequent discoveries getting the letters c, d, e, and so forth, in the order they are found.

That is why the new exoplanet is named K2-288Bb – the ‘b’ at the end being the suffix for the first planet discovered in the stellar system K2-288B.

To give another example, TRAPPIST-1, an ultra-cool dwarf star in the constellation Aquarius, 39 light-years away from the Earth, has ten known exoplanets

Hence, based on the aforementioned naming methodology, the seven latest discoveries, starting from the planet closest to the star, are named TRAPPIST-1b, TRAPPIST-1c, TRAPPIST-1d, TRAPPIST-1e, TRAPPIST-1f, TRAPPIST-1g, and TRAPPIST-1h.

The letter ‘a’ by default goes to the parent star, though not shown with the name.

Habitable Zone (Goldilocks’ Zone)

An planet or exoplanet is said to be in the habitable zone of a planetary system when it is orbiting at an ideal distance from the system’s star/sun to potentially support life of any kind – not too close to the star to be too hot to support water formation, neither too far for water to be in a permanent freeze.

Kepler Space Observatory

Named after the astronomer, Johannes Kepler, the Kepler space observatory had been in an “Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit” ever since its launch in March 2009 as part of NASA’s program to discover Earth-sized exoplanets.

After nine years of service to science and space research, Kepler was decommissioned by the space agency on October 30, 2018.

The spacecraft was designed to scan an area of the galaxy in the vicinity of our own solar system to identify Earth-like exoplanets in and around the ‘habitable zones’ of their planetary systems.

Equipped with a photometer that continuously monitored the brightness of over 145,000 main sequence stars in a fixed field of view, Kepler beamed the collected data back to Earth for analysis.

The method involved detecting the periodic dimming which happens when exoplanets cross in front of their host star – similar to the Eclipse concept.

Due to noise interference in the data from the stars as well as the spacecraft, the mission was supposed to be extended till 2016 in order to achieve all mission targets.

However, built to endure the harsh space conditions for a maximum of 3.5 years, Kepler ran into trouble on July 14, 2012, when one of the four reaction wheels of the craft stopped turning.

Incident-free functioning of the three remaining reaction wheels was now critical to the completion of the mission but fate would have it differently.

On May 11, 2013, the continuation of the mission was seriously jeopardized when a second reaction wheel stopped working.

NASA failed in its attempt to fix the two out-of-commission reaction wheels, publicly throwing in the towel on August 15, 2013, with an announcement to the effect.

The agency then appealed to the space science community for alternative plans for continuing the search for exoplanets using the two working reaction wheels and thrusters.

The K2 “Second Light” proposal, which involved using the limited capabilities of the handicapped Kepler to track habitable planets around smaller and dimmer red dwarfs, was made in Nov 2013, getting NASA’s official nod in May 2014.

Since then until its demise, the space telescope’s had surveyed and cataloged hundreds of new planetary candidates.

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From The Editors Science

NASA to Crash 13,500mph Spacecraft into an Asteroid Moon in Experimental Earth-Saving Mission

With some 20,000 near-Earth asteroids and comets orbiting the Sun, NASA and other space agencies have been constantly tracking these near-Earth objects (NEOs) since the 1990s in a joint initiative called ‘Spaceguard.”

However, merely chasing these potential threats is not going to save Earth from another mass extinction and, probably, thousands of years of ice age, should one of them slam into us.

The good news is that NASA has been working on a planetary-defense mission called DART, an acronym for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, to save us from exactly such an eventuality.

DART is essentially an impactor spacecraft that NASA plans to crash into an asteroid satellite at 13,500 miles per hour in an effort to change its course.

The idea is to find out how much the car-sized impactor can change the trajectory of the flying space rock and whether it’s enough to redirect an Earth-bound asteroid safely away from us.

The space rock that NASA has in its crosshairs for the planned Oct 2022 smash-up is, in fact, a satellite moonlet nicknamed Didymoon, about seven million miles away from Earth.

The moonlet, which is about 150 meters across, orbits an 800-meter-wide asteroid called Didymos, from where it gets its nickname.

While Didymoon is not on a collision course with Earth and poses no threat to us whatsoever, a detailed study of the space object and then slamming into it to bump it off its bearings should provide the DART team with useful data that can come in handy in averting a real asteroid threat if ever it comes to that.

Speaking to Space.com at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Nancy Chabot – a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and project scientist for DART – said that “science-driven” space missions were largely focused on understanding the origins of our solar system and its building blocks, but planetary defense was all “about the present solar system and what are we going to do in the present.”

Chabot says that tracking the moonlet and knowing its exact location, instead of having a ballpark idea of its whereabouts, is going to be crucial to the mission because the DART team wants to hit it head-on for maximum impact.

“It’s interesting because it’s a space mission, but the telescopes are such a huge, important part of the mission succeeding,” Chabot told space news website.

“We have to know where this moon is in order to impact it, to make this maximum deflection,” she said.

“We kind of take for granted that we know where everything is at all times,” she continued

“We understand where the system is as a whole, but specifically where that moon’s gonna be [requires tracking] because we want to try to hit it head-on,” Chabot added.

However, at least ten to twenty years’ advance warning will be needed to pull off something like redirecting a huge asteroid in a real-threat scenario, according to Chabot.

She says that “the idea of a kinetic impactor is definitely not like [the movie] ‘Armageddon,’ where you go up at the last hour and you know, save the Earth.”

She adds: “This is something that you would do five, 10, 15, 20 years in advance — gently nudge the asteroid so it just sails merrily on its way and doesn’t impact the Earth.”

The 14 radar images below, captured by the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico in November 2003, show Didymos (65803) and its moonlet.

 (Credit: NASA)

If all goes according to plan, the mission will launch as early as June 2021, with an expected collision date in Oct 2022, as mentioned earlier.

While ground telescopes will track the new course of the twin objects post-impact, an Italian Space Agency CubeSat called Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids will accompany DART on its mission to keep an eye on proceedings.

Additionally, as part of an international Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch two CubeSats, APEX (Asteroid Prospection Explorer) and Juventas, onboard the agency’s Hera spacecraft, in time to reach the binary asteroid system sometime in 2026 to record the effects of the DART collision, according to NASA.

“To test potential techniques in “deflecting” an asteroid – one of the preferred methods for mitigating a threat – DART will travel to the Didymos binary asteroid system via its a xenon-based electric propulsion system, steering with an onboard camera and sophisticated autonomous navigation software,” says the U.S. space agency.

DART is expected to send back a close-up shot of the Didymoon surface – its last transmission to Earth – before it is pulverized into space dust.

For any Solar System body to qualify as a near-Earth object, its closest approach to the Sun has to be less than 1.3 astronomical units (AU), the equivalent of nearly 121 million miles.

Among the 20,000 near-Earth asteroids and comets orbiting the Sun is a 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu, which has a 1-in-2,700 chance of smashing into Earth sometime between 2175 and 2196, say scientists.

The potentially hazardous object (PHO), “listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale,” is currently 54 million miles from Earth.

The Sun-orbiting asteroid has been in NASA’s crosshairs ever since its discovery by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project in 1999.

So focussed has the space agency been on Bennu that in 2016 it sent its ORISIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft to the asteroid on a sample-return mission.

After traveling through space for more than two years, the spacecraft finally reached the proximity of Bennu last month.

Over the coming months, the NASA spaceship will map the asteroid to identify the best possible sample-collection site before making a slow descent to the surface to collect samples using its robotic arm.

OSIRIS-REx will begin its return journey after it has safely tucked away its precious cargo of Bennu samples inside a Sample-Return Capsule (SRC).

The SRC is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land at the U.S.

Air Force Utah Test and Training Range on Sep 24, 2023 – about a year after DART smashes into Didymoon, hopefully, achieving the desired results.

For all we know, Bennu might just turn out be the asteroid that NASA has to knock off-course to save the planet in the future; that’s when the knowledge gained from the DART mission will come in handy – unless the 500-meter flying rock hits us sooner.

Time will tell.

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From The Editors Science

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft has a New Year’s Day Rendezvous with Ultima Thule

Lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system, four billion miles away from Earth, one billion miles beyond Pluto, is a tiny Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), designated 2014 MU69 but better known by its nickname, Ultima Thule.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day, thirty-three minutes after the ball has dropped in Times Square, NASA’s interplanetary probe, New Horizons, will zip past Ultima Thule at a distance of 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) traveling at an astounding speed of around 32,280 miles per hour (or 51,950 km/hr).

Ultima Thule, which dates back to our solar system’s origin 4.5 billion years ago, will become the star system’s most distant object ever to be visited by a human-made spacecraft.

As distant and tiny as it is – just about 19 miles (30 kilometers) in diameter – the KBO has largely remained a mystery for scientists, which they are hoping to unravel, come New Year’s Day.

“There’s so much that we can learn from close-up spacecraft observations that we’ll never learn from Earth, as the Pluto flyby demonstrated so spectacularly,” said John Spencer, New Horizons science team member, in an August statement.

“The detailed images and other data that New Horizons could obtain from a KBO flyby will revolutionize our understanding of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs,” he added.

Spencer is also affiliated to the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

Over the last couple of weeks, the New Horizons team has been performing a series of checks and trajectory tweaks to ensure the spacecraft is on course to make the flyby as productive as possible, in so far as gathering maximum possible data on the ancient object is concerned.

However, a lot of things could still go wrong, even though scientists have not found any rings or natural satellites around Ultima Thule that the spacecraft could possibly collide with.

The speed at which the NASA probe is hurtling through space, even an object as tiny as a grain of rice can spell its doom.

“There’s some danger and some suspense,” said Alan Stern, a scientists at SwRI who is also the lead mission investigator for New Horizons.

The New Horizons team understands how important it is to get it right the first time, as there won’t be a second chance to correct things – not at the blistering speed the probe is traveling at.

“Like Pluto, it’s a one shot. We don’t have a second spacecraft coming by a week later,” Stern said.

“And because it’s a very complex enterprise to do one of these flybys, there are literally hundreds of variables that all have to choreograph perfectly,” he added.

New Horizons has been traveling through space ever since it was launched thirteen years ago on a Pluto flyby and study mission, which it accomplished back in 2015.

On February 28, 2007, New Horizons flew by Jupiter at a distance of 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers), successfully sending back data about the planet’s atmosphere, moons, and magnetosphere.

The solar system giant gave it the gravitational slingshot it needed to boost its speed for the onward journey to Pluto, which was spent in hibernation mode to keep its onboard systems preserved for the mission ahead.

The systems were brought back online for brief annual check-ups before being put back to sleep.

More than a month before its January 15, 2015, rendezvous with Pluto, the probe was brought online one final time for a complete instruments and systems checkout before the close encounter.

The mission was a success as New Horizons was able to provide close-ups of the dwarf planet as well as scientifically invaluable data about its atmosphere, terrain, and environments.

Ultima Thule was never part of the original mission and was selected as New Horizons next flyby destination about six months after the Pluto encounter.

Although scientists have a rough idea about Ultima Thule’s size, which is about 19 miles across, as mentioned earlier, they are not 100 percent sure it’s a single object.

It could well be two objects close to each other, or even connected like conjoined twins, which would make each of them about 9 to 12 miles in diameter.

An artist’s interpretation of New Horizons’ encounter with Ultima Thule, in case it turns out to be a pair of objects instead of one (Image: NASA)
An artist’s interpretation of New Horizons’ encounter with Ultima Thule, in case it turns out to be a pair of objects instead of one (Image: NASA)

New Horizons is well equipped to map 2014 MU69 in every which way possible, and although nothing is certain, the KBO could possibly be pockmarked with impact craters, pits, and sinkholes or, conversely, present a smooth surface.

Color-wise, scientists are of the opinion that Ultima Thule will be burned black by exposure to billions of years of cosmic rays, with a reddish hue to it; but again, these are speculations and nothing is a given.

“I don’t make predictions,” said Stern.

“The only prediction I made at Pluto is we’d find something wonderful, and we did,” he said, adding that not knowing what to expect would be fun.

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From The Editors Science

Sending People to Mars is “Stupid” – “Almost Ridiculous” Says Former NASA Astronaut

While the likes of NASA and private players like SpaceX and Blue Origin, to name a couple, seem determined to send manned missions to Mars, one of the first men to orbit the moon believes it’s a “stupid” idea.

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, former NASA astronaut Bill Anders, said that sending people to Mars was “almost ridiculous.”

He was speaking to the radio broadcast service as part of a special documentary – “Apollo 8: Christmas On the Far Side of the Moon” – celebrating the golden jubilee anniversary of the mission.

Anders told the service that he was a “big supporter” of unmanned space missions, largely due to the fact that they were much cheaper to fund than human missions, which is why they didn’t have any public support.

“What’s the imperative? What’s pushing us to go to Mars?” Anders asked.
“I don’t think the public is that interested,” he added.

Anders, who as a lunar module pilot was an integral part of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968, was rather critical of how the space agency has evolved since.

“NASA couldn’t get to the Moon today. They’re so ossified,” Anders lamented.

“Nasa has turned into a jobs program… many of the centers are mainly interested in keeping busy and you don’t see the public support other than they get the workers their pay and their congressmen get re-elected,” he said.

“I think NASA’s lucky to have what they’ve got — which is still hard, in my mind, to justify,” he said, acknowledging that he wasn’t a “very popular guy at NASA for saying that,” but that’s what he thought.

Ander’s Apollo 8 crewmate and mission commander, Frank Borman, has a different perspective, though.

“I’m not as critical of NASA as Bill is,” he told Radio 5, adding, “I firmly believe that we need robust exploration of our Solar System and I think a man is part of that.”

However, Borman was somewhat scathing in his opinion about Space X CEO Elon Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, both of whom have manned missions to the red planet in the pipeline.

“I do think there’s a lot of hype about Mars that is nonsense,” Borman said.
“Musk and Bezos, they’re talking about putting colonies on Mars, that’s nonsense,” he added.

Reminiscing about the pioneering mission, Anders said that the “Earthrise” picture taken from Apollo 8, which shows the blue planet above the lunar horizon, half-lit against the pitch black of space, has left a lasting impression on his mind.

The famous Earthrise image from Apollo 8 (Source: NASA)
The famous Earthrise image from Apollo 8 (Source: NASA)

Calling it a “great endeavor,” Borman said that the Apollo 8 mission, effectively, won the space race for the United States.

When people were celebrating Christmas back home, Anders, Borman and the third crew member of the mission, command module pilot Jim Lovell, were marveling at the sight of the moon up close.

Apollo 8 went on to orbit the moon as many as ten times, taking twenty hours in the process, and each time they went around the far side they lost radio contact with mission control.

“Behind the moon, you have absolutely no contact with anybody on Earth, anyway,” Anders said.

“I felt like I have to make sure the spacecraft was working,” he said, adding that he didn’t dwell much on the fact that they were out of touch with humanity.

Borman said that working with NASA kept him away from home for 200-250 days a year, “so it was nothing that we weren’t accustomed to,” but the fact that it was Christmas made him more nostalgic than he had ever felt.

Launched on December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 traveled through space for 68 hours to cover the distance to the moon and, as mentioned, orbited Earth’s natural satellite ten times in just over twenty hours before heading back home.

Their spaceplane made a watery landing in the northern Pacific Ocean on December 27, about 4,500 meters off-target, where they were picked up by the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown.

The Apollo 8 mission set the tone for Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin’s historic moon landing on Apollo 11, which in the words of Armstrong was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Speaking at a Q&A session at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, earlier this year, Musk had spoken at length on one of his pet topics, Mars and its imminent colonization.

He said that SpaceX was in the process of building an “interplanetary ship,” which would be the first step towards realizing his super-ambitious dream of putting humans on the red planet.

“We are building the first ship, or interplanetary ship, right now,” Musk told screenwriter Jonathan Nolan at the Austin venue.

He was obviously referring to the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR)

“And we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short up and down flights, during the first half of next year,” he said.

Clearing the general misconception that the colonization of Mars would mainly serve as “an escape hatch for rich people,” Musk said that it was far from the truth.

He said that it was a dangerous undertaking that could even end in death for some, but “excitement” for those who manage to come out of it alive.

“For the people who go to Mars, it’ll be far more dangerous,” he said.

“It kind of reads like Shackleton’s ad for Antarctic explorers. ‘Difficult, dangerous, good chance you’ll die. Excitement for those who survive.’ That kind of thing,” he added.

He said that despite the risks involved, there were people for whom the thrill of the adventure into the “next frontier” would take precedence over everything else.

“There are already people who want to go in the beginning. There will be some for whom the excitement of exploration and the next frontier exceeds the danger,” Musk said.

Taking it a step or two further, he said that his Mars endeavor would herald larger world participation, in terms of building the infrastructure necessary for the colonization of his favorite planet, ranging from “iron foundries to pizza joints and nightclubs.”

He even spoke about a “direct democracy” kind of government on the red planet, allowing colonizers to vote directly on specific issues, rather than having a representative government.

“Most likely, the form of government on Mars would be somewhat of direct democracy.” He said.

“Maybe it requires 60% [majority vote] to get a law in place, but any number over 40% can remove a law,” Musk said. That way it would be “easier to get rid of a rule than to put one in,” he added.

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From The Editors Science

NASA Alert: Asteroid ‘2018 XE4’ to Zip Past Earth at 20,000 MPH on Boxing Day

According to NASA’s ‘Close Approach Data’ for near-Earth objects, or NEOs, an asteroid with an estimated diameter of 13 to 20 meters (43 to 95 feet) is fast approaching Earth at an astounding speed of 20,000 miles per hour.

Researchers tracking the space rock at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, expect the NASA-classified “small body” asteroid, nicknamed 2018 XE4, to fly past our planet at a distance of 1.2 million miles at 8:37 p.m. GMT (3:37 pm Eastern Time) on Boxing Day (December 26).

Although it’s going to miss us by a margin that’s 5.34 times the distance between Earth and Moon, it’s still too close for comfort in space terms.

Smaller asteroids that have struck Earth in the past have caused extensive destruction and mayhem; so, one can imagine the kind of damage an asteroid the size of 2018 XE4 traveling at more than 26 times the speed of sound would cause if it were to hit us.

The 2013 meteor that injured at least 1,500 people in Russia is a case in point.

The 66-foot-wide supersonic meteor smashed into the atmosphere above the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, sending shockwaves so powerful that 1,200 people were injured and more than 7,000 buildings in six cities were damaged.

The flash from the streaking meteor was brighter than the Sun and was seen as far away as Kazakhstan, 80 miles south, and Nizhny Tagil, nearly 300 miles to the north.

Nasa says: “As they orbit the Sun, Near-Earth Objects can occasionally approach close to Earth.

“As the primitive, leftover building blocks of the solar system formation process, comets and asteroids offer clues to the chemical mixture from which the planets formed some 4.6 billion years ago.

‘If we wish to know the composition of the primordial mixture from which the planets formed, then we must determine the chemical constituents of the leftover debris from this formation process – the comets and asteroids.”

For any Solar System body to qualify as a near-Earth object, its closest approach to the Sun has to be less than 1.3 astronomical units (AU), the equivalent of nearly 121 million miles.

With some 20,000 near-Earth asteroids and comets orbiting the Sun, NASA and other space agencies have been constantly tracking NEOs since the 1990s in a collective initiative called ‘Spaceguard.’

The biggest threat to Earth, however, is from a 500-meter-wide asteroid called Bennu, which has a 1-in-2,700 chance of smashing into Earth sometime between 2175 and 2196, say scientists.

The potentially hazardous object (PHO), “listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale,” is currently 54 million miles from Earth.

The Sun-orbiting asteroid has been in NASA’s crosshairs ever since its discovery by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project in 1999.

So focussed has the space agency been on Bennu that in 2016 it sent its ORISIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft to the asteroid on a sample-return mission.

After traveling through space for more than two years, the spacecraft finally reached the proximity of Bennu earlier this month.

Spectroscopic surveys of its surface revealed the presence of hydrated minerals, signifying that the space rock had interacted with liquid water at some point in its past.

Although NORISIS-REx’s onboard spectrometers didn’t detect water per se, they did find hydrogen and oxygen bonds called hydroxyls trapped in clay-bearing material all over Bennu’s rock-strewn topography.

Speaking at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in Washington DC, on Dec 10, Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the discovery was “evidence of liquid water in Bennu’s past.”

“The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” Amy Simon, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in an agency press release.

Over the coming months, the NASA spaceship, which is on an asteroid probe and sample-return mission to Bennu, will make increasingly closer passes of the asteroid, entering orbit on New Year’s Eve.

It will then begin mapping the asteroid to identify the best possible sample site before making a slow descent to the surface to collect samples using its robotic arm.

OSIRIS-REx is capable of making as many as three attempts at collecting the samples, after which it will have to begin its return journey, with its precious cargo of Bennu samples safely tucked away inside a Sample-Return Capsule (SRC).

The SRC is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land at the US Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sep 24, 2023.

“When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system,” Simon said in the press release.

“We targeted Bennu precisely because we thought it had water-bearing minerals and — by analogy with the carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that we’ve been studying — organic material,” Space.com quoted Lauretta as saying.

“That still remains to be seen — we have not detected the organics — but it definitely looks like we’ve gone to the right place,” she added.

If NASA can land a spacecraft on an asteroid 54 million miles away and bring back samples from there, it can pretty much nuke Bennu to smithereens should the need arise.

So, rest easy in the knowledge that the likes of NASA and other space agencies of the world are keeping a watchful eye on the Bennus of space.