In October 2021, NASA launched its ambitious Lucy mission. Its targets are asteroids, two in the main belt and eight Jupiter trojans, which orbit the Sun in the same path as Jupiter. The mission is named after early hominin fossils (Australopithecus afarensis,) and the name pays homage to the idea that asteroids are fossils from the Solar System’s early days of planet formation.
Visiting ten asteroids in one mission is the definition of ambitious, and now NASA is adding an eleventh.
The otherwise unremarkable double asteroid of Didymos and Dimorphos made headlines as the target of NASA’s successful Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) mission. With new details about the system emerging, astronomers have put together a hypothesis of how this strange double asteroid came to be.
If and when we ever get an asteroid mining industry off the ground, one of the most important decisions to be made in the structure of any asteroid mining mission would be how to get the resources back to where all of our other infrastructure is – somewhere around the Earth. That decision typically will focus on one of two propulsion methodologies – chemical rockets, such as those we already use to get us into space in the first place, or solar sails, which, while slower and unable to get us into orbit, don’t require any fuel. So, which propulsion methodology is better for these future missions? A study by researchers at the University of Glasgow looked at those two scenarios and came out with a clear-cut answer – solar sails.
Even from beyond the grave, Arecibo is still contributing to new discoveries. Back in October, researchers released a “treasure trove of data” from what was then the world’s most powerful radio telescope on the radar signatures of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs). Not only will these observations help defend the planet if any of those asteroids happen to be hazardous, but they can also help the burgeoning asteroid mining industry scan for targets.
Throughout the Solar System, planets and moons bear the scars of a past fraught with collisions. The Moon, Mercury, and Mars are so scarred from these impacts that craters overlap one another on their surfaces. Earth was subject to the same bombardment, though most of its impact scars disappeared over time due to active geology.
But some are still visible, and we know how catastrophic some of these impacts were for life.
Traditional mining has been subject to a negative stigma for some time. People, especially in developed countries, have a relatively negative view of this necessary economic activity. Primarily that is due to its environmental impacts – greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction are some of the effects that give the industry its negative image. Mining in space is an entirely different proposition – any greenhouse gases emitted on the Moon or asteroids are inconsequential, and there is no habitat to speak of on these barren rocks. So what is the general public’s opinion on mining in space? A paper from a group of researchers in Australia, one of the countries most impacted by the effects of terrestrial mining, now gives us an answer.
There’s an old adage in the engineering field – what gets funded gets built. So it’s sure to be a happy time over at the Planetary Society, as NEO Surveyor, the project the organization has primarily supported over the past few years, has made it through NASA’s grueling budgetary process to reach the “development” stage, with an eye for a launch of the system in 2028.
On September 26th, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft collided with Dimorphos, the small moonlet that orbits the larger Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Didymos. The purpose was to test a planetary defense technique known as the kinetic impact method, where a spacecraft intentionally collides with a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHAs) to alter its course. Based on a post-collision analysis, NASA determined that DART’s impact altered Dimorphos’ orbital period by 33 minutes and caused tons of rock to be ejected from its surface.
Since the collision, NASA has also been monitoring the cloud of ejecta produced by the impact to see how it has since evolved. The purpose of this is to better understand what the DART spacecraft achieved at the impact site, how much of it was delivered by the spacecraft, and how much was due to the recoil produced by the ejection. On December 15th, during the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Chicago, members of the DART team provided the preliminary analysis of their findings.
The stars call to us, as Carl Sagan once said. Given the human drive to explore our world and expand our reach, it is likely only a matter of time before we begin to build our homes in the solar system. The Moon and Mars could be acceptable destinations, but nearby asteroids could also become homes, as a recent study shows.
Asteroid impacts rank highest on the UN’s list of potentially species-ending calamities. They’ve been the subject of countless movies and books, some of which are accurate depictions of what would happen, and some of which are not. Now, if you’ve ever been interested to see what would happen if different sizes of asteroid impact different areas of the globe, the internet has a tool for you!