Steam-Powered Spacecraft Could Explore the Asteroid Belt Forever, Refueling Itself in Space

The era of renewed space exploration has led to some rather ambitious proposals. While many have been on the books for decades, it has only been in recent years that some of these plans have become technologically feasible. A good example is asteroid mining, where robotic spacecraft would travel to Near-Earth Asteroids and the Main Asteroid Belt to harvest minerals and other resources.

At the moment, one of the main challenges is how these craft would be able to get around and refuel once they are in space. To address this, the New York-based company Honeybee Robotics has teemed up with the University of Central Florida (UFC) to develop a steam-powered robotic spacecraft. The company recently released a demonstration video that shows their prototype World is Not Enough (WINE) “steam hopper” in action.

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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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OSIRIS-REx has Finally Caught up with Asteroid Bennu. Let the Analysis and Sample Collection Commence!

The asteroid Bennu, as imaged by OSIRIS-REx from a distance of about 80 km. Image Credit: NASA/University of Arizona

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has reached its destination and is now in orbit around asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft travelled for over two years and covered more than 2 billion kms. It will spend a year in orbit, surveying the surface of the Potentially Hazardous Object (PHO) before settling on a location for the key phase of its mission: a sample return to Earth.

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The Path that MASCOT Took Across Asteroid Ryugu During its 17 Hours of Life

MASCOT's path across the surface of asteroid Ryugu. The path was recreated using data from the robot and from the mother probe Hayabusa2. Hayabusa2's shadow is visible at the bottim right. Image Credit: DLR/JAXA

The tiny hopping-robot MASCOT completed its 17 hour mission on the asteroid Ryugu in early October. Now the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has released an image of MASCOT’s path across the asteroid. Surprised by what MASCOT found on the surface, they’ve named the landing spot “Alice’s Wonderland.”
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A Mission to Deflect an Asteroid Just Moved into the Final Design and Assembly Phase

Within near-Earth space, there are over 18,000 asteroids whose orbit occasionally brings them close to Earth. Over the course of millions of years, some of these Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) – which range from a few meters to tens of kilometers in diameter – may even collide with Earth. It is for this reason that the ESA and other space agencies around the world are engaged in coordinated efforts to routinely monitor larger NEOs and track their orbits.

In addition, NASA and other space agencies have been developing counter-measures in case any of these objects stray too close to our planet in the future. One proposal is NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the world’s first spacecraft specifically designed to deflect incoming asteroids. This spacecraft recently moved into the final design and assembly phase and will launch to space in the next few years.

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A Long Exposure Hubble Image of a Galaxy Cluster Also Turned up 22 Asteroids

The Hubble Space Telescope is the oldest space telescope in operation, having spent the past twenty-eight years in orbit. Nevertheless, this mission is still hard at work revealing things about our Solar System, neighboring exoplanets, and some of the farthest reaches of the Universe. And every so often, it also captures an image that happens to turn up something interesting and unexpected.

Recently, while conducting a study of Abell 370, a galaxy cluster located approximately four billion light-years away in the constellation Cetus (the Sea Monster), Hubble managed to spot something in foreground. While observing this collection of several hundred galaxiess, the image was photobombed by 22 asteroids whose tails created streaks that looked like background astronomical phenomena.

The study was part of the Frontier Fields program, where Hubble has captured images of some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe (aka. “relic galaxies”) in order to determine how it evolved over time. The position of this asteroid field is near the ecliptic (the plane of our Solar System) where most asteroids reside, which is why Hubble astronomers saw so many crossings.

Artist’s impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

In the past, Hubble has recorded many instances of asteroid trails when conducting observations along a line-of-sight near the plane of our Solar System. In this case, the Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) – which orbit Earth at an average distance of about 260 million km (161.5 million mi) – were previously undetected due to their faintness. But thanks to the images taken by Hubble, scientists were able to identify them manually based on their motion.

Of the 22 asteroids, five were identified as unique objects. The image was assembled from several exposures taken in visible and infrared light, which was first released on November 6th, 2017. The image was prepared in honor of “Asteroid Day”, a global annual event that takes place every June 30th to raise awareness about asteroids and what can be done to protect Earth from a possible impact.

The day falls on the anniversary of the Tunguska event, which took place on June 30th, 1918, in eastern Russia and resulted in the flattening of 2,000 square km (770 square mi) of forest. While far less harmful than the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event – which took place 66 million years ago and is believed to have killed the dinosaurs – Tunguska was the most harmful asteroid event in recorded history.

In many of the images snapped by Hubble, the asteroid tails appeared as white trails that look like curved streaks, an effect caused by parallax. In astronomy, parallax is an observational effect where the apparent position of an object appears to be different based on different lines of sight. Basically, as Hubble orbited around the Earth and took several images of the galaxy, the asteroids appeared to be moving relative to the background stars and galaxies.

The massive galaxy cluster Abell 370 as seen by Hubble Space Telescope in the final Frontier Fields observations. Credit: NASA/ESA/HFF

The asteroids own motion along their orbits and other contributing factors also led to their streaked appearance. Whereas the white streaks were identified as asteroid tails, the blue streaks are distorted images of distant galaxies behind the cluster. This effect is known as gravitational lensing, where light from distant objects is warped and magnified by the presence of an intervening object.

In this case, the intervening object who’s gravitational force magnified the light of the background galaxies was Abell 370. These more distant galaxies are too distant for Hubble to see directly, hence why astronomers use the technique to study the most distant objects in the Universe. But whereas the blue streaks were expected, the white streaks caused by asteroids took scientists completely by surprise!

This year, the European Space Agency (ESA) is co-hosting a live webcast with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) with expert interviews, news on some the most recent asteroid research, and a discussion about what killed the dinosaurs. You can watch this event tomorrow starting at 13:00 CEST (11:00 UST/04:00 PST) by going to the ESA’s Asteroid Day web page.

Further Reading: ESA

Astronomy Cast Ep. 495: Update on Asteroids & Prospects of Asteroid Mining

Our knowledge of space is starting to match up with our ability to get out there an explore it. There are several companies working on missions and techniques to harvest minerals from asteroids. What other resources are out there that we can use?

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