OSIRIS-REx Did One Last Close Flyby of Asteroid Bennu. It’s Almost Time to Come Home

After more than two years in orbit around asteroid Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is ready to come home. It’s bringing with it a pristine sample of space rocks that geologists here on Earth are eager to study up close. The sample will arrive in September 2023, but we won’t have to wait nearly that long for new data from OSIRIS-REx. Last week, the probe carried out one final flyby of Bennu, in an effort to photograph the sample collection site. The photographs are being downlinked now, and should be here by midweek.

If you’ve been following the OSIRIS-REx mission, you probably already know why scientists are keen to see these photographs, but if you haven’t, hold on to your hats – it’s a wild story.

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It Turns Out That the World’s Oldest Impact Crater Isn’t an Impact Crater

In early 2012, an international research team surveying parts of southwestern Greenland announced that they had discovered the oldest impact crater ever discovered on Earth, estimated at 3.3 billion years old. Now, new research shows that the strange geological feature – known as the Maniitsoq structure – is probably the result of Earthly geological processes, rather than a meteorite impact.

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Dust in the Chixalub Crater Makes the Compelling Case That an Asteroid Wiped out the Dinosaurs 65 Million Years ago

For decades scientists have believed that an asteroid impact event ended the era of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Now, analysis from the crater site itself seals the deal: the same elements that were deposited around the world from the impact have been found inside the crater itself.

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Jupiter has Added a Comet to its Trojan Collection

Jupiter is notorious for capturing objects that venture too close to the gas giant and its enormous pull of gravity. Asteroids known as Jupiter Trojans are a large group of space rocks that have been snared by the planet, which usually remain in a stable orbit near one of the Jupiter’s Lagrangian points.  

But now, the Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a comet near Jupiter’s Trojan asteroid population. This is the first time a comet has been found in this region, and the team of scientists studying the object  – named P/2019 LD2 (LD2) – think the unexpected comet is only a temporary visitor.

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OSIRIS-REx is Heading for Home in May

The OSIRIS-REx team decided to delay the spacecraft’s departure from asteroid Bennu for two months. The departure window opens in March 2021, and the original plan had OSIRIS-REx setting course for Earth on March 3, to bring home the asteroid samples it collected last October.

Now, a revised timeline has the spacecraft leaving Bennu on May 10, 2021. This won’t affect the target delivery data of September of 2023, but it will allow for more observations of the asteroid.

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Asteroids Crashing Into Dead Stars are Helping Explain Where the Universe’s Missing Lithium Went

What happened to all the lithium? The question has stumped astronomers for decades. While cosmologists have successfully predicted the abundance of the other light elements from the Big Bang, lithium has always come up short. Now, a team of astronomers may have found the reason: lithium-rich asteroids are smashing into white dwarves.

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Japan’s Hayabusa 2 Probe Drops Off Bits of an Asteroid and Heads for Its Next Target

Hayabusa 2 artwork

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe zoomed past Earth on December 5th and dropped off a capsule containing bits of an asteroid, finishing a six-year round trip.

But the mission is far from over: While Hayabusa 2’s parachute-equipped sample capsule descended to the Australian Outback, its mothership set a new course for an encounter with yet another asteroid in 2031.

Hayabusa 2’s prime objective was to deliver bits of Ryugu, an asteroid that’s currently 11.6 million kilometers from Earth. Mission controllers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, cheered and laughed when word came that the capsule had survived atmospheric re-entry.

Imagery captured by tracking cameras — and from the International Space Station — showed the capsule streaking like a fireball across the sky as it decelerated from an initial speed of 43,000 kilometers per hour.

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There Might Be Water On All Rocky Planets

Artist’s impression of a massive asteroid belt in orbit around a star. Earth's water may not have all come from asteroids and comets, so maybe that's true for exoplanets. Credit: NASA-JPL / Caltech / T. Pyle (SSC)

If you asked someone who was reasonably scientifically literate how Earth got its water, they’d likely tell you it came from asteroids—or maybe comets and planetesimals, too—that crashed into our planet in its early days. There’s detail, nuance, and uncertainty around that idea, but it’s widely believed to be the most likely reason that Earth has so much water.

But a new explanation for Earth’s water is emerging. It says that the water comes along for the ride when Earth formed out of the solar nebula.

If that’s correct, it means that most rocky planets might have water for at least a portion of their lives.

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