ESA is Planning a Mission to the Smallest Spacerock Ever Visited: the Moon of an Asteroid

An illustration of the ESA's Hera spacecraft at Didymos. Image Credit: ESA–ScienceOffice.org

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.

For added kicks, it will forestall the happiness of any over-earger doomsday cultists, and the rest of us can revel in their existential anguish.

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Tiny Object Found at the Edge of the Solar System for the First Time. A Kuiper Belt Object that’s Only 2.6 km Across

The Kuiper Belt, or the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, is home to ancient rocks. Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs, are remnants of the early planet-formation days of our Solar System. Small KBOs, in the 1 km. diameter range, have been theorized about for decades, but nobody’s every found one.

Until now.

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A Disc of Icy Material, not Planet 9, Might Explain the Strange Movements in the Outer Solar System

Could a disk of icy material be responsible for the strange orbits of distand objects in our Solar System? Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Is there or isn’t there a Planet 9? Is there a planet way out on the outskirts of our Solar System, with sufficient mass to explain the movements of distant objects? Or is a disc of icy material responsible? There’s no direct evidence yet of an actual Planet 9, but something with sufficient mass is affecting the orbits of distant Solar System objects.

A new study suggests that a disc of icy material causes the strange movements of outer Solar System objects, and that we don’t need to invent another planet to explain those movements. The study comes from
Professor Jihad Touma, from the American University of Beirut, and
Antranik Sefilian, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Their results are published in the Astronomical Journal.

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Cassini Saw Rain Falling at Titan’s North Pole

An image from the Nasa-Esa-Asi Cassini spacecraft provides evidence of rainfall on the north pole of Titan

The Cassini mission to Saturn ended in September 2017, but the data it gathered during its 13 year mission is still yielding scientific results. On the heels of a newly-released global image of Saturn’s moon Titan comes another discovery: Rainfall at Titan’s north pole.

Climate models developed by scientists during Cassini’s mission concluded that rain should fall in the north during Titan’s summer. But scientists hadn’t seen any clouds. Now, a team of scientists have published a paper centered on Cassini images that show light reflecting off a wet surface. They make the case that the reflecting light, called a Bright Ephemeral Flare (BEF) is sunlight reflecting from newly-fallen rain.

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Titan’s Thick Clouds Obscure our View, but Cassini Took these Images in Infrared, Showing the Moon’s Surface Features

A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

Saturn’s moon Titan is a very strange place. It’s surrounded by a dense, opaque atmosphere, the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere to speak of. It has lakes of liquid methane on its surface, maybe some cryovolcanoes, and some scientists speculate that it could support a form of life. Very weird life.

But we still don’t know a lot about it, because we haven’t really seen much of the surface. Until now.

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Something Twice the Size of Earth Slammed into Uranus and Knocked it Over on its Side

Between 3 to 4 billion years ago, a body twice the size of Earth impacted Uranus, knocking the ice giant onto its side. Image Credit: Jacob A. Kegerreis/Durham University

Astronomers think they know how Uranus got flipped onto its side. According to detailed computer simulations, a body about twice the size of Earth slammed into Uranus between 3 to 4 billion years ago. The impact created an oddity in our Solar System: the only planet that rotates on its side.

A study explaining these findings was presented at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting in Washington DC held between December 10th to 14th. It’s led by Jacob Kegerreis, a researcher at Durham University. It builds on previous studies pointing to an impact as the cause of Uranus’ unique orientation. Taken altogether, we’re getting a clearer picture of why Uranus rotates on its side compared to the other planets in our Solar System. The impact also explains why Uranus is unique in other ways.
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A Nuclear-Powered Tunneling Robot that Could Search for Life on Europa

Artist’s rendering of the Europa “tunnelbot.” (Credit: Alexander Pawlusik, LERCIP Internship Program NASA Glenn Research Center)

The search for life has led astronomers to the icy moons in our Solar System. Among those moons, Europa has attracted a lot of attention. Europa is Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon—and the sixth-largest in the Solar System—at 3,100 kilometres (1,900 mi) in diameter. Scientists think that its oceans could contain two or three times as much water as Earth’s oceans. The only problem is, that water is hidden under a sheet of planet-wide ice that could be between 2km and 30km (1.2 miles and 18.6 miles) thick.

A team of scientists is working hard on the problem. Andrew Dombard, associate professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is part of a team that presented a possible solution. At the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington, D.C., they presented their idea: a nuclear-powered tunneling robot that could tunnel its way through the ice and into the ocean.

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Just discovered! “Farout”, the Farthest Object Ever Seen in the Solar System

Artist concept of 2018 VG18 "Farout". Credit Roberto Molar Candanosa/Carnegie Institution for Science.

Astronomers have discovered a distant body that’s more than 100 times farther from the Sun than Earth is. Its provisional designation is 2018 VG18, but they’ve nicknamed the planet “Farout.” Farout is the most distant body ever observed in our Solar System, at 120 astronomical units (AU) away.

The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center announced Farout’s discovery on Monday, December 17th, 2018. This newly-discovered object is the result of a team of astronomers’ search for the elusive “Planet X” or “Planet 9,” a ninth major planet thought to exist at the furthest reaches of our Solar System, where its mass would shape the orbit of distant planets like Farout. The team hasn’t determined 2018 VG18’s orbit, so they don’t know if its orbit shows signs of influence from Planet X.

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OSIRIS-REx Has Already Found Water on Bennu

The asteroid Bennu from a distance of 24 km (15) miles captured by the PolyCam on OSIRIS-REx. The spacecraft has detected water on Bennu. On the bottom right in the termination line is the large boulder. The image is a mosaic constructed of 12 images. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) has found water on the asteroid Bennu. Bennu is OSIRIS-REx’s only target, and though the spacecraft arrived at the asteroid on December 3rd, some of its instruments have been trained on the asteroid since mid-August. And two of those instruments detected water on Bennu.

OSIRIS-REx wasn’t sent to Bennu just to find water. The mission is NASA’s first asteroid sample-return mission. The presence of water on Bennu confirms what the science team hoped would be true when they selected the asteroid as the spacecraft’s destination: Bennu is an excellent target for scientific inquiry into the early Solar System.

“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, OVIRS deputy instrument scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

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