The OSIRIS-REx Capsule Has Landed! Asteroid Samples Returned!

The sample return capsule from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is seen shortly after touching down in the desert, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: NASA

The OSIRIS-REx mission has just completed NASA’s first sample-return mission from a near-Earth asteroid (NEA). The samples arrived at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) near Salt Lake City, where a team of engineers arrived by helicopter to retrieve the sample capsule. The samples will be curated by NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate (ARES) and Japan’s Extraterrestrial Sample Curation Center (ESCuC). Analysis of the rocks and dust obtained from Bennu is expected to provide new insight into the formation and evolution of the Solar System.

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Lucy Has its First Asteroid Target in the Crosshairs

This image shows the tiny main-belt asteroid Dinkinesh. Lucy captured this image from 23 million km away. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/SwRI/Johns Hopkins APL

NASA’s Lucy spacecraft launched almost one year ago, in October of 2021. Its journey is an ambitious one, and long. It’ll visit eight different asteroids in its planned 12-year mission. Two of them are main belt asteroids, and the other six are Jupiter Trojans, which share the gas giant’s orbit around the Sun.

Lucy’s first, and smallest, target asteroid is now in the spacecraft’s sights.

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DART Had a Surprising Impact on its Target

This Hubble image shows debris from Dimorphos about one day after NASA's DART spacecraft slammed into it. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Li (PSI)

After NASA’s DART mission slammed into asteroid Dimorphous in September 2022, scientists determined the impact caused tons of rock to be ejected from the small asteroid’s surface. But more importantly, DART’s impact altered Dimorphos’ orbital period, decreasing it by about 33 minutes.

However, a group of researchers measured the orbital period about a month later and discovered that it had increased to 34 minutes — 1 minute longer than the first measurements. Even though it was a single impact from DART, some force continued to slow the asteroid’s orbit, and astronomers don’t yet know what that mechanism might be.

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Engineers Design a Robot That Can Stick To, Crawl Along, and Sail Around Rubble Pile Asteroids

Asteroids come in many shapes and sizes. Most are spherical, though many have a feature that can make them difficult to land on – they are essentially just collections of rocks loosely bound together by gravity. In space exploration jargon, they are known as “rubble piles.” Many of the asteroids humanity has visited are considered rubble piles, including Itokawa and Dimorphos, the destinations for Hayabusa and DART, respectively. But, as the trials of the Philae spacecraft showed when it tried to meet up with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, landing on these objects with very low surface gravity can be difficult. Enter a new concept from researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Their idea, known as Area-of-Effect Softbots (AoES), could help future asteroid explorers, and even miners, overcome some of the challenges facing them at these small bodies.

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Threats From Above Lead the List of Space Concerns in New Survey

Vapor trail from 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor
This vapor trail was left behind by an asteroid that zoomed over the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013. (Credit: Alex Alishevskikh via NASA)

Sending astronauts to the moon is OK — but more Americans think NASA should instead put a high priority on monitoring outer space for asteroids and other objects that could pose a threat to Earth, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest survey focusing on Americans’ perspectives on space policy.

The nonprofit research center’s report was released today, on the 54th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It follows up on a similar survey that was done in 2018 to mark NASA’s 60th anniversary.

The earlier survey suggested that slightly more Americans saw monitoring climate change as a top priority (63% vs 62%). This year, the rankings were reversed, with 60% putting cosmic threats at the top of their list, as opposed to 50% for climate concerns. Only 12% of the respondents said sending astronauts to explore the moon was a top priority, and 11% said sending astronauts to Mars led their list. That translates into less support than those missions had five years ago.

The survey, conducted online from May 30 to June 4, is based on responses from 10,329 randomly selected U.S. adults who are part of the research center’s online panel. The results were weighted to reflect current demographics.

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Psyche Mission Passes Independent Review Board with Flying Colors

Image of NASA engineers preparing the Psyche spacecraft for launch within a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility located near the NASA Kennedy Space Center. Psyche is scheduled to launch in October 2023 on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from historic Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy. (Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

An independently appointed review board recently announced that NASA, their Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have exceeded expectations in taking steps to ensure the successful launch of the metal-rich-asteroid-hunting Psyche mission this October. This comes after Psyche’s initial launch date was delayed from August 2022 due to late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment, which prevented engineers from performing the necessary checkouts prior to launch.

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If You’re Going to Visit Venus, Why Not Include an Asteroid Flyby Too?

Radar image of Venus created by the Solar System Visualization project and the Magellan science team at the JPL Multimission Image Processing Laboratory. This is a single frame from a video released at the October 29, 1991, JPL news conference. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

A recent study submitted to Acta Astronautica examines the prospect of designing a Venus mission flight plan that would involve visiting a nearby asteroid after performing a gravity assist maneuver at Venus but prior to final contact with the planet. The study was conducted by Vladislav Zubko, who is a researcher and PhD Candidate at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Science (RAS) and has experience studying potential flight plans to various planetary bodies throughout the solar system.

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Want to be an asteroid miner? There’s a database for that.

Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt
Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

Asteroid mining is slowly but surely coming closer to reality. Many start-ups and governmental agencies alike are getting in on the action. But plenty of tools that would help get this burgeoning industry off the ground are still unavailable. One that would be particularly useful is a list of potential candidate asteroids to visit. While the information has been available in various places, no one has yet combined it into a single, searchable database until now.  

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Astronomers Want Your Help to Identify Risky Asteroids

Catalina Sky Survey 60-inch telescope
The Catalina Sky Survey 60-inch telescope observes the cosmos from Mount Lemmon in Arizona. (Credit: Catalina Sky Survey)

You, too, can be an asteroid hunter — thanks to a citizen-science project launched by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. And you might even get a scientific citation.

The project is enlisting human spotters to verify potential detections of space rocks moving through the field of view of the Catalina Sky Survey’s telescopes. The NASA-funded survey is charged with keeping track of more than a million asteroids, with a principal goal of identifying near-Earth objects that could pose a risk to our planet.

More than 14,400 near-Earth objects, or NEOs, have been discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey during the past 30 years, including 1,200 that were identified just in the past year. That adds up to nearly half of the known NEO population.

The problem is, astronomers know there are still lots of unknown asteroids out there — too many for them to spot without an assist from amateurs. “We take so many images of the sky each night that we cannot possibly look through all of our potential real asteroids,” Carson Fuls, a science engineering specialist for the Catalina Sky Survey, said in a NASA news release. That’s where the Daily Minor Planet can make a difference.

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Here's How NASA is Planning to Protect Earth From Asteroids and Comets

This diagram shows the orbits of 2,200 potentially hazardous objects as calculated by JPL’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). Highlighted is the orbit of the double asteroid Didymos, the target of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The large impact craters dotting our planet are powerful reminders that asteroids and comets strike the Earth from time to time. As often said, it’s not a question of “if”; it’s a matter of “when” our planet will face an impending strike from space. But an impact is one existential threat humanity is finally starting to take seriously and wrap its head around.

Seemingly spurred by the success of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), NASA just released a new planetary defense strategy and action plan, describing its efforts to find and identify potentially hazardous objects to provide an advanced warning, and then even push them off an impact trajectory.

This 10-year strategy looks to advance efforts to protect the Earth from a devastating encounter with a Near Earth asteroid or comet.

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