On the same day that the Earth survived an expected near-miss with asteroid 367943 Duende, Russian dashcams unexpectedly captured footage of a different asteroid as it slammed into the atmosphere, exploded, and injured more than 1,000 people. That day in Chelyabinsk in February 2013 reminded the world that the Earth does not exist in a bubble.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – NASA’s first mission to demonstrate a planetary defense technique – will get one chance to hit its target, the small moonlet in the binary asteroid system Didymos. The asteroid poses no threat to Earth and is an ideal test target: measuring the change in how the smaller asteroid orbits about the larger asteroid in a binary system is much easier than observing the change in a single asteroid's orbit around the Sun. Work is ramping up at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and other locations across the country, as the mission heads toward its summer 2021 launch – and attempts to pull off a feat so far seen only in science fiction films.
For some small minority of humans, Death By Asteroid is a desirable fate. The idea probably satisfies their wonky Doomsday thinking. But for the rest of us, going out the same way the dinosaurs did would just be embarrassing. Thankfully, the ESA’s Hera mission will visit the smallest spacerock ever, and will help us avoid going the way of the dinosaurs.
A little over 4 billion years ago, the planets in our solar system coexisted with vast numbers of small rocky or icy objects orbiting the Sun. These were the last remnants of the planetesimals – the primitive building blocks that formed the planets. Most of these leftover objects were then lost, as shifts in the orbits of the giant planets scattered them to the distant outer reaches of the solar system or beyond. But some were captured in two less-distant regions, near points where the gravitational influence of Jupiter and the Sun balance, and have remained trapped there, mostly untouched, for billions of years.
NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission has released its fourth year of survey data. Since the mission was restarted in December 2013, after a period of hibernation, the asteroid- and comet-hunter has completely scanned the skies nearly eight times and has observed and characterized 29,375 objects in four years of operations. This total includes 788 near-Earth objects and 136 comets since the mission restart.
Mining asteroids might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but there are companies and a few governments already working hard to make it real. This should not be surprising: compared with the breathtaking bridges that engineers build on Earth, asteroid-mining is a simple, small-scale operation requiring only modest technological advances. If anything is lacking, it is the imagination to see how plausible it has become. I am afraid only that it might not arrive soon enough to address the urgent resource challenges that the world is facing right now.
Like rude relatives who jump in front of your vacation snapshots of landscapes, some of our solar system's asteroids have photobombed deep images of the universe taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. These asteroids reside, on average, only about 160 million miles from Earth — right around the corner in astronomical terms. Yet they've horned their way into this picture of thousands of galaxies scattered across space and time at inconceivably farther distances.
Asteroid Florence, a large near-Earth asteroid, will pass safely by Earth on Sept. 1, 2017, at a distance of about 4.4 million miles, (7.0 million kilometers, or about 18 Earth-Moon distances). Florence is among the largest near-Earth asteroids that are several miles is size; measurements from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and NEOWISE mission indicate it’s about 2.7 miles (4.4 kilometers) in size.
Sometimes, I think scientists are just that little bit too modest. A new paper in Science has a humdinger of a title: “Localized aliphatic organic material on the surface of Ceres”. It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue and may not even seem that important. But what the researchers have discovered is a huge deal. They’ve found organic compounds – the kind of molecules from which life on Earth originated – on the surface of Ceres, the solar system’s largest asteroid.
Water has been showing up in all sorts of unexpected places in our Solar System, such as the Moon, Mercury and Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Add one more place to the list: Asteroid 16 Psyche. This metal-rich asteroid may have traces of water molecules on its surface that shouldn’t be there, researchers say.
Since it landed on the surface of the Red Planet in 2012, the Curiosity rover has made some rather surprising finds. In the past, this has included evidence that liquid water once filled the Gale Crater, the presence of methane and organic molecules today, curious sedimentary formations, and even a strange ball-shaped rock.
It’s been a great few weeks for missions to small, primitive bodies. We’ve just about digested the latest news from the Ceres asteroid and rejoiced at the recovery of the comet-lander Philae, in time to wish a safe journey to NASA’s exciting new mission to Asteroid 101955 Bennu. OSIRIS-REx (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorers – which is a bit of a mouthful) is to launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral at 7:05pm EDT on September 8.
The arrival of NASA’s Dawn mission at the huge asteroid “1 Ceres” in early 2015 has turned out to have been well worth waiting for. This dwarf planet is the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and was the first to be discovered. But, until recently, we have only had information from ground and space-based telescopes, which have given us tantalising glimpses of a dark, possibly water-rich object.
One of the moon’s greatest mysteries has long been whether it has any water. During the Apollo era in 1960s and 70s, scientists were convinced it was dry and dusty – estimating there was less than one part in a billion water. However, over the last decade, analyses of lunar samples have revealed that there is a considerable amount of water inside the moon – up to several hundred parts per million – and that it’s been there since the satellite was very young.