Japanese Rovers are Now on the Surface of an Asteroid, Sending Back Amazing Pictures

In December of 2014, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Hayabusa2 mission. As the second spacecraft to bear this name, Hayabusa2 was deployed by JAXA to conduct a sample-return mission with an asteroid. By studying samples of the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu, scientists hope to shed new light on the history of the early Solar System

The spacecraft arrived in orbit around Ryugu in July of 2018, where it will spend a total of a year and a half surveying the asteroid before returning to Earth. On September 23rd, the satellite deployed its onboard MINERVA-II rovers onto the surface of Ryugu. According to the latest updates from JAXA, both rovers are in good condition and have recently sent back photographs and a video of the asteroid’s surface.

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Here’s the Earth and Moon Seen from OSIRIS-REx

On September 8th, 2016, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission was launched into space. In the coming months, this space probe will approach and then rendezvous with the asteroid 101955 Bennu – a Near-Earth Object (NEO) – for the sake of studying it. The mission will also acquire samples of the asteroid, which will be returned to Earth by 2023.

The OSIRIS-REx mission is an historic one, since it will be the first US spacecraft to conduct a sample-return mission with an asteroid. In the meantime, as the probe has makes its way further into space, it has been providing some truly breathtaking images of the journey. Consider the recently-released composite image of the Earth-Moon system, which NASA created using images that were taken by the probe on October 2nd, 2017.

The images were all taken by the probe’s MapCam instrument, a medium-range camera designed to capture images of outgassing around Bennu and help map its surface in color. On this occasion, it snapped three beautiful pictures of Earth and the Moon. These images were all taken when the spacecraft was at a distance of approximately 5 million km (3 million mi) from Earth – about 13 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

Black and white image of Earth taken by the OSIRIS-REx’s NavCam 1 instrument. Credit: NASA/OSIRIS-REx team and the University of Arizona

As part of the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS), which is operated by researchers at the University of Arizona, the CapCam has four color filters. To produce the image, three of them (b, v and w) were used as a blue, green and red filters and then stacked on top of each other. The Earth and Moon were each color-corrected, and the Moon was brightened to make it more easily visible.

A second image of planet Earth (shown above), was taken on September 22nd, 2017, by one of the probe’s navigational cameras (NavCam 1). As the name suggests, this instrument is intended to help OSIRIS-REx orient itself while making its journey to Bennu and while it studies the asteroid. This is done by tracking starfields in space (while in transit) and landmarks on Bennu’s surface once it has arrived.

The image was taken when OSIRIS-REx was at a distance of 110,000 km (69,000 mi) from Earth. This was just after the probe had completed an Earth gravity-assist maneuver, where it used Earth’s gravitational force to slingshot around its equator and pick up more speed. The original image (shown below) was rotated so that the North Pole would be pointed up and the entire image was enlarged to provide more detail.

As you can see in the altered image, North America is visible on the upper right portion, while Hurricane Maria and the remnants of Hurricane Jose are visible in the far upper-right. The acquisition of these images was the result of painstaking calculations and planning, which were performed in advance by engineers and navigation specialists on the mission team using software called Systems Tool Kit (STK).

Original image taken by the OSIRIS-REx NavCam 1 of Earth. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

These plans were developed to ensure that the probe would be able to snap pictures with precise timing, which were then uploaded to the spacecraft’s computer weeks ahead of time. Within hours of the probe executing its gravity-assist maneuver, crews on the ground were treated to the first images from the spacecraft’s navigational cameras, which confirmed that the probe was following the right path.

The probe is scheduled to reach Bennu in December of 2018, with approach operations commencing this coming August. Bennu is also expected to make a close pass with Earth several centuries from now, and could even collide with us by then. But for the time being, it represents a major opportunity to study the history and evolution of the Solar System, since it is essentially a remnant left over from its formation.

By studying this asteroid up close, and bringing samples back to Earth for further study, the OSRIS-REx mission could help us understand how life began on Earth and where the Solar System as a whole is headed. But in the meantime, the probe has been able to provide us with some beautiful snapshots of Earth, which serve to remind us all of certain things.

Much like Voyager 1‘s “Pale Blue Dot” photo, seeing Earth from space helps to drive home the fact that life is rare and precious. It also reminds us that we, as a species, are all in this together and completely and utterly dependent  on our planet and its ecosystems. Once in awhile, we need to be reminded of these things. Otherwise, we might do some stupid – like ruin it!

Further Reading: NASA

Large Near-Earth Asteroid Will Pass Earth by This September

Within Earth’s orbit, there are literally thousands of what are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), more than fourteen thousands of which are asteroids that periodically pass close to Earth. Since the 1980s, these objects have become a growing source of interest to astronomers, due to the threat they sometimes represent. But as ongoing studies and decades of tracking the larger asteroids has shown, they usually just pass Earth by.

More importantly, it is only on very rare occasions (i.e. over the course of millions of years) that a larger asteroid will come close to colliding with Earth. For example, this September 1st, the Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) known as 3122 Florence, will pass by Earth, but poses no danger of hitting us. Good thing too, since this Near-Earth Asteroid is one of the largest yet to be discovered, measuring about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter!

To put that in perspective, the asteroid which is thought to have killed the dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago (aka. the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event) is believed to have measured 10 km (6 mi) in diameter. This impact also destroyed three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth, hence why organizations like NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) is in he habit of tracking the larger NEAs.

Asteroid Florence, a large near-Earth asteroid, will pass safely by Earth on Sept. 1, 2017, at a distance of about 7 million km (4.4 million mi). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Once again, NASA has determined that this particular asteroid will sail harmlessly by, passing Earth at a minimum distance of over 7 million km (4.4 million mi), or about 18 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. As Paul Chodas – NASA’s manager of CNEOS at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – said in a NASA press statement:

“While many known asteroids have passed by closer to Earth than Florence will on September 1, all of those were estimated to be smaller. Florence is the largest asteroid to pass by our planet this close since the NASA program to detect and track near-Earth asteroids began.”

Rather than being a threat, the flyby of this asteroid will be an opportunity for scientists to study it up close. NASA is planning on conducting radar studies of Florence using the Goldstone Solar System Radar in California, and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Arecibo Observatory in Peurto Rico. These studies are expected to yield more accurate data on its size, and reveal surface details at resolutions of up to 10 m (30 feet).

This asteroid was originally discovered on March 2nd, 1981, by American astronomer Schelte Bus at the Siding Spring Observatory in southwestern Australia. It was named in honor of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) the founder of modern nursing. Measurements obtained by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the NEOWISE mission are what led to the current estimates on its size – about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter.

Artist’s rendition of how far Florence will pass by Earth. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The upcoming flyby will be the closest this asteroid has passed to Earth since August 31st, 1890, where it passed at a distance of 6.7 million km (4.16 million mi). Between now and then, it also flew by Earth on August 29th, 1930, passing Earth at a distance of about 7.8 million km (4.87 million mi). While it will pass Earth another seven times over the course of the next 500 years, it will not be as close as it will be this September until after 2500.

For those interesting into doing a little sky watching, Florence will be brightening substantially by late August and early September. During this time, it will be visible to those using small telescopes for several nights as it moves through the constellations of Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius and Delphinus.

Be sure to check out these animations of Florence’s orbit and its close flyby to Earth:

https://echo.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroids/Florence/Florence_orbit.mov

https://echo.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroids/Florence/Florence_Earth_flyby.mov

Further Reading: NASA

Colonizing the Inner Solar System

Colonizing The Inner Solar System


Science fiction has told us again and again, we belong out there, among the stars. But before we can build that vast galactic empire, we’ve got to learn how to just survive in space. Fortunately, we happen to live in a Solar System with many worlds, large and small that we can use to become a spacefaring civilization.

This is half of an epic two-part article that I’m doing with Isaac Arthur, who runs an amazing YouTube channel all about futurism, often about the exploration and colonization of space. Make sure you subscribe to his channel.

This article is about colonizing the inner Solar System, from tiny Mercury, the smallest planet, out to Mars, the focus of so much attention by Elon Musk and SpaceX.  In the other article, Isaac will talk about what it’ll take to colonize the outer Solar System, and harness its icy riches. You can read these articles in either order, just read them both.

At the time I’m writing this, humanity’s colonization efforts of the Solar System are purely on Earth. We’ve exploited every part of the planet, from the South Pole to the North, from huge continents to the smallest islands. There are few places we haven’t fully colonized yet, and we’ll get to that.

But when it comes to space, we’ve only taken the shortest, most tentative steps. There have been a few temporarily inhabited space stations, like Mir, Skylab and the Chinese Tiangong Stations.

Our first and only true colonization of space is the International Space Station, built in collaboration with NASA, ESA, the Russian Space Agency and other countries. It has been permanently inhabited since November 2nd, 2000.  Needless to say, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA

Before we talk about the places and ways humans could colonize the rest of the Solar System, it’s important to talk about what it takes to get from place to place.

Just to get from the surface of Earth into orbit around our planet, you need to be going about 10 km/s sideways. This is orbit, and the only way we can do it today is with rockets. Once you’ve gotten into Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, you can use more propellant to get to other worlds.

If you want to travel to Mars, you’ll need an additional 3.6 km/s in velocity to escape Earth gravity and travel to the Red Planet. If you want to go to Mercury, you’ll need another 5.5 km/s.

And if you wanted to escape the Solar System entirely, you’d need another 8.8 km/s. We’re always going to want a bigger rocket.

The most efficient way to transfer from world to world is via the Hohmann Transfer. This is where you raise your orbit and drift out until you cross paths with your destination. Then you need to slow down, somehow, to go into orbit.

One of our primary goals of exploring and colonizing the Solar System will be to gather together the resources that will make future colonization and travel easier. We need water for drinking, and to split it apart for oxygen to breathe. We can also turn this water into rocket fuel. Unfortunately, in the inner Solar System, water is a tough resource to get and will be highly valued.

We need solid ground. To build our bases, to mine our resources, to grow our food, and to protect us from the dangers of space radiation. The more gravity we can get the better, since low gravity softens our bones, weakens our muscles, and harms us in ways we don’t fully understand.

Each world and place we colonize will have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s be honest, Earth is the best place in the Solar System, it’s got everything we could ever want and need. Everywhere else is going to be brutally difficult to colonize and make self-sustaining.

We do have one huge advantage, though. Earth is still here, we can return whenever we like. The discoveries made on our home planet will continue to be useful to humanity in space through communications, and even 3D printing. Once manufacturing is sophisticated enough, a discovery made on one world could be mass produced half a solar system away with the right raw ingredients.

We will learn how to make what we need, wherever we are, and how to transport it from place to place, just like we’ve always done.

Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury is the closest planet from the Sun, and one of the most difficult places that we might attempt the colonize. Because it’s so close to the Sun, it receives an enormous amount of energy. During the day, temperatures can reach 427 C, but without an atmosphere to trap the heat, night time temperatures dip down to -173 C. There’s essentially no atmosphere, 38% the gravity of Earth, and a single solar day on Mercury lasts 176 Earth days.

Mercury does have some advantages, though. It has an average density almost as high as Earth, but because of its smaller size, it actually means it has a higher percentage of metal than Earth. Mercury will be incredibly rich in metals and minerals that future colonists will need across the Solar System.

With the lower gravity and no atmosphere, it’ll be far easier to get that material up into orbit and into transfer trajectories to other worlds.

But with the punishing conditions on the planet, how can we live there? Although the surface of Mercury is either scorching or freezing, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft turned up regions of the planet which are in eternal shadow near the poles. In fact, these areas seem to have water ice, which is amazing for anywhere this close to the Sun.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

You could imagine future habitats huddled into those craters, pulling in solar power from just over the crater rim, using the reservoirs of water ice for air, fuel and water.

High powered solar robots could scour the surface of Mercury, gathering rare metals and other minerals to be sent off world. Because it’s bathed in the solar winds, Mercury will have large deposits of Helium-3, useful for future fusion reactors.

Over time, more and more of the raw materials of Mercury will find their way to the resource hungry colonies spread across the Solar System.

It also appears there are lava tubes scattered across Mercury, hollows carved out by lava flows millions of years ago. With work, these could be turned into safe, underground habitats, protected from the radiation, high temperatures and hard vacuum on the surface.

With enough engineering ability, future colonists will be able to create habitats on the surface, wherever they like, using a mushroom-shaped heat shield to protect a colony built on stilts to keep it off the sun-baked surface.

Mercury is smaller than Mars, but is a good deal denser, so it has about the same gravity, 38% of Earth’s. Now that might turn out to be just fine, but if we need more, we have the option of using centrifugal force to increase it. Space Stations can generate artificial gravity by spinning, but you can combine normal gravity with spin-gravity to create a stronger field than either would have.

So our mushroom habitat’s stalk could have an interior spinning section with higher gravity for those living inside it. You get a big mirror over it, shielding you from solar radiation and heat, you have stilts holding it off the ground, like roots, that minimize heat transfer from the warmer areas of ground outside the shield, and if you need it you have got a spinning section inside the stalk. A mushroom habitat.

Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Some exoplanets may suffer the same fate as this scorched world. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Venus is the second planet in the Solar System, and it’s the evil twin of Earth. Even though it has roughly the same size, mass and surface gravity of our planet, it’s way too close to the Sun. The thick atmosphere acts like a blanket, trapping the intense heat, pushing temperatures at the surface to 462 C.

Everywhere on the planet is 462 C, so there’s no place to go that’s cooler. The pure carbon dioxide atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth, which is equivalent to being a kilometer beneath the ocean on Earth.

In the beginning, colonizing the surface of Venus defies our ability. How do you survive and stay cool in a thick poisonous atmosphere, hot enough to melt lead? You get above it.

One of the most amazing qualities of Venus is that if you get into the high atmosphere, about 52.5 kilometers up, the air pressure and temperature are similar to Earth. Assuming you can get above the poisonous clouds of sulphuric acid, you could walk outside a floating colony in regular clothes, without a pressure suit. You’d need a source of breathable air, though.

Even better, breathable air is a lifting gas in the cloud tops of Venus. You could imagine a future colony, filled with breathable air, floating around Venus. Because the gravity on Venus is roughly the same as Earth, humans wouldn’t suffer any of the side effects of microgravity. In fact, it might be the only place in the entire Solar System other than Earth where we don’t need to account for low gravity.

Artist's concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center
Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center

Now the day on Venus is incredibly long, 243 earth days, so if you stay over the same place the whole time it would be light for four months then dark for four months. Not ideal for solar power on a first glance, but Venus turns so slowly that even at the equator you could stay ahead of the sunset at a fast walk.

So if you have floating colonies it would take very little effort to stay constantly on the light side or dark side or near the twilight zone of the terminator. You are essentially living inside a blimp, so it may as well be mobile. And on the day side it would only take a few solar panels and some propellers to stay ahead. And since it is so close to the Sun, there’s plenty of solar power. What could you do with it?

The atmosphere itself would probably serve as a source of raw materials. Carbon is the basis for all life on Earth. We’ll need it for food and building materials in space. Floating factories could process the thick atmosphere of Venus, to extract carbon, oxygen, and other elements.

Heat resistant robots could be lowered down to the surface to gather minerals and then retrieved before they’re cooked to death.

Venus does have a high gravity, so launching rockets up into space back out of Venus’ gravity well will be expensive.

Over longer periods of time, future colonists might construct large solar shades to shield themselves from the scorching heat, and eventually, even start cooling the planet itself.

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA
Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA

The next planet from the Sun is Earth, the best planet in the Solar System. One of the biggest advantages of our colonization efforts will be to get heavy industry off our planet and into space. Why pollute our atmosphere and rivers when there’s so much more space… in space.

Over time, more and more of the resource gathering will happen off world, with orbital power generation, asteroid mining, and zero gravity manufacturing. Earth’s huge gravity well means that it’s best to bring materials down to Earth, not carry them up to space.

However, the normal gravity, atmosphere and established industry of Earth will allow us to manufacture the lighter high tech goods that the rest of the Solar System will need for their own colonization efforts.

But we haven’t completely colonized Earth itself. Although we’ve spread across the land, we know very little about the deep ocean. Future colonies under the oceans will help us learn more about self-sufficient colonies, in extreme environments. The oceans on Earth will be similar to the oceans on Europa or Enceladus, and the lessons we learn here will teach us to live out there.

As we return to space, we’ll colonize the region around our planet. We’ll construct bigger orbital colonies in Low Earth Orbit, building on our lessons from the International Space Station.

One of the biggest steps we need to take, is understanding how to overcome the debilitating effects of microgravity: the softened bones, weakened muscles and more. We need to perfect techniques for generating artificial gravity where there is none.

A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA
A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA

The best technique we have is rotating spacecraft to generate artificial gravity. Just like we saw in 2001, and The Martian, by rotating all or a portion of a spacecraft, you can generated an outward centrifugal force that mimics the acceleration of gravity. The larger the radius of the space station, the more comfortable and natural the rotation feels.

Low Earth Orbit also keeps a space station within the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, limiting the amount of harmful radiation that future space colonists will experience.

Other orbits are useful too, including geostationary orbit, which is about 36,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Here spacecraft orbit the Earth at exactly the same rate as the rotation of Earth, which means that stations appear in fixed positions above our planet, useful for communication.

Geostationary orbit is higher up in Earth’s gravity well, which means these stations will serve a low-velocity jumping off points to reach other places in the Solar System. They’re also outside the Earth’s atmospheric drag, and don’t require any orbital boosting to keep them in place.

By perfecting orbital colonies around Earth, we’ll develop technologies for surviving in deep space, anywhere in the Solar System. The same general technology will work anywhere, whether we’re in orbit around the Moon, or out past Pluto.

When the technology is advanced enough, we might learn to build space elevators to carry material and up down from Earth’s gravity well. We could also build launch loops, electromagnetic railguns that launch material into space. These launch systems would also be able to loft supplies into transfer trajectories from world to world throughout the Solar System.

Earth orbit, close to the homeworld gives us the perfect place to develop and perfect the technologies we need to become a true spacefaring civilization. Not only that, but we’ve got the Moon.

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

The Moon, of course, is the Earth’s only natural satellite, which orbits us at an average distance of about 400,000 kilometers. Almost ten times further than geostationary orbit.

The Moon takes a surprising amount of velocity to reach from Low Earth Orbit. It’s close, but expensive to reach, thrust speaking.

But that fact that it’s close makes the Moon an ideal place to colonize. It’s close to Earth, but it’s not Earth. It’s airless, bathed in harmful radiation and has very low gravity. It’s the place that humanity will learn to survive in the harsh environment of space.

But it still does have some resources we can exploit. The lunar regolith, the pulverized rocky surface of the Moon, can be used as concrete to make structures. Spacecraft have identified large deposits of water at the Moon’s poles, in its permanently shadowed craters. As with Mercury, these would make ideal locations for colonies.

Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA's Johnson Space Center
Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Our spacecraft have also captured images of openings to underground lava tubes on the surface of the Moon. Some of these could be gigantic, even kilometers high. You could fit massive cities inside some of these lava tubes, with room to spare.

Helium-3 from the Sun rains down on the surface of the Moon, deposited by the Sun’s solar wind, which could be mined from the surface and provide a source of fuel for lunar fusion reactors. This abundance of helium could be exported to other places in the Solar System.

The far side of the Moon is permanently shadowed from Earth-based radio signals, and would make an ideal location for a giant radio observatory. Telescopes of massive size could be built in the much lower lunar gravity.

We talked briefly about an Earth-based space elevator, but an elevator on the Moon makes even more sense. With the lower gravity, you can lift material off the surface and into lunar orbit using cables made of materials we can manufacture today, such as Zylon or Kevlar.

One of the greatest threats on the Moon is the dusty regolith itself. Without any kind of weathering on the surface, these dust particles are razor sharp, and they get into everything. Lunar colonists will need very strict protocols to keep the lunar dust out of their machinery, and especially out of their lungs and eyes, otherwise it could cause permanent damage.

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

Although the vast majority of asteroids in the Solar System are located in the main asteroid belt, there are still many asteroids orbiting closer to Earth. These are known as the Near Earth Asteroids, and they’ve been the cause of many of Earth’s great extinction events.

These asteroids are dangerous to our planet, but they’re also an incredible resource, located close to our homeworld.

The amount of velocity it takes to get to some of these asteroids is very low, which means travel to and from these asteroids takes little energy. Their low gravity means that extracting resources from their surface won’t take a tremendous amount of energy.

And once the orbits of these asteroids are fully understood, future colonists will be able to change the orbits using thrusters. In fact, the same system they use to launch minerals off the surface would also push the asteroids into safer orbits.

These asteroids could be hollowed out, and set rotating to provide artificial gravity. Then they could be slowly moved into safe, useful orbits, to act as space stations, resupply points, and permanent colonies.

There are also gravitationally stable points at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 Lagrange Points. These asteroid colonies could be parked there, giving us more locations to live in the Solar System.

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The future of humanity will include the colonization of Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun. On the surface, Mars has a lot going for it. A day on Mars is only a little longer than a day on Earth. It receives sunlight, unfiltered through the thin Martian atmosphere. There are deposits of water ice at the poles, and under the surface across the planet.

Martian ice will be precious, harvested from the planet and used for breathable air, rocket fuel and water for the colonists to drink and grow their food. The Martian regolith can be used to grow food. It does have have toxic perchlorates in it, but that can just be washed out.

The lower gravity on Mars makes it another ideal place for a space elevator, ferrying goods up and down from the surface of the planet.

The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA
The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA

Unlike the Moon, Mars has a weathered surface. Although the planet’s red dust will get everywhere, it won’t be toxic and dangerous as it is on the Moon.

Like the Moon, Mars has lava tubes, and these could be used as pre-dug colony sites, where human Martians can live underground, protected from the hostile environment.

Mars has two big problems that must be overcome. First, the gravity on Mars is only a third that of Earth’s, and we don’t know the long term impact of this on the human body. It might be that humans just can’t mature properly in the womb in low gravity.

Researchers have proposed that Mars colonists might need to spend large parts of their day on rotating centrifuges, to simulate Earth gravity. Or maybe humans will only be allowed to spend a few years on the surface of Mars before they have to return to a high gravity environment.

The second big challenge is the radiation from the Sun and interstellar cosmic rays. Without a protective magnetosphere, Martian colonists will be vulnerable to a much higher dose of radiation. But then, this is the same challenge that colonists will face anywhere in the entire Solar System.

That radiation will cause an increased risk of cancer, and could cause mental health issues, with dementia-like symptoms. The best solution for dealing with radiation is to block it with rock, soil or water. And Martian colonists, like all Solar System colonists will need to spend much of their lives underground or in tunnels carved out of rock.

Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. The explorers have descended to the surface of Phobos in a small "excursion" vehicle, and they are navigating with the aid of a personal spacecraft, which fires a line into the soil to anchor the unit. The astronaut on the right is examining a large boulder; if the boulder weighed 1,000 pounds on Earth, it would weigh a mere pound in the nearly absent gravity field of Phobos. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)
Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)

In addition to Mars itself, the Red Planet has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. These will serve as ideal places for small colonies. They’ll have the same low gravity as asteroid colonies, but they’ll be just above the gravity well of Mars. Ferries will travel to and from the Martian moons, delivering fresh supplies and sending Martian goods out to the rest of the Solar System.

We’re not certain yet, but there are good indicators these moons might have ice inside them, if so that is an excellent source of fuel and could make initial trips to Mars much easier by allowing us to send a first expedition to those moons, who then begin producing fuel to be used to land on Mars and to leave Mars and return home.

According to Elon Musk, if a Martian colony can reach a million inhabitants, it’ll be self-sufficient from Earth or any other world. At that point, we would have a true, Solar System civilization.

Now, continue on to the other half of this article, written by Isaac Arthur, where he talks about what it will take to colonize the outer Solar System. Where water ice is plentiful but solar power is feeble. Where travel times and energy require new technologies and techniques to survive and thrive.

Watch Asteroid 2016 VA Pass Through Earth’s Shadow

Holy low-flying space rocks, Batman.

Newly discovered asteroid 2016 VA snuck up on us last night, and crossed through the Earth’s shadow to boot.

Discovered just yesterday by the Mount Lemmon Sky Survey based outside of Tucson Arizona, 2016 VA passed just 58,600 miles (93,700 kilometers) from the surface of the Earth this morning at 00:42 Universal Time (UT). That’s a little over 20% of the distance from the Earth to the Moon, and just over twice the distance to the ring of geosynchronous and geostationary satellites around the Earth.

This sort of close pass of a newly discovered asteroid happens a few times a year. What made 2016 VA’s passage unusual, however, was its transit through the Earth’s shadow. The discovery was announced yesterday by the Minor Planet Center, and astronomer Gianluca Masi soon realized that the Virtual Telescope Project had a unique opportunity to capture the asteroid on closest approach.

The passage of asteroid 2016 VA. Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.
Asteroid 2016 VA. Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.

Gianluca Masi explained how the difficult capture was done:

“The image is a 60-second exposure, remotely taken with “Elena” (a PlaneWave 17” +Paramount ME+SBIG STL-6303E robotic unit) available at the Virtual Telescope project. The robotic mount tracked the extremely fast apparent motion of the asteroid, so stars are trailing. The asteroid is perfectly tracked; it is the sharp dot in the center, marked with two white segments. At imaging time, asteroid 2016 VA was at about 200,000 kilometers from us and approaching.”

Catching a fast-moving asteroid such as 2016 VA on closest approach isn’t easy. First off, there’s an amount of uncertainty surrounding the orbit of a newly discovered object until more observations can be made. 2016 VA passed close enough to the Earth that our planet’s gravity substantially altered the tiny asteroid’s future orbit. Also, a house-sized Earth-crosser like 2016 VA is really truckin’ across the sky on closest approach: 2016 VA was moving at 1500” a minute through Earth’s shadow – that’s 25” a second, fast enough to cross the apparent diameter of a Full Moon in just 72 seconds.

Masi also notes:

“During its flyby, asteroid 2016 VA was also eclipsed by the Earth. We covered the spectacular event, clearly capturing the penumbral effects. The movie is an amazing document showing the eclipse. Each frame comes from a 5-second integration.”

Watch as 2016 VA winks out as it hits Earth's shadow... Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.
Watch as 2016 VA winks out as it hits Earth’s shadow… Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.

At an estimated 16 to 19 meters in size, 2016 VA shined at 13th magnitude as it crossed the southern hemisphere constellation of Sculptor on closest approach. It crossed through the Earth’s shadow for 11 minutes from 23:23 to 23:34 UT last night, just over an hour before closest approach. You can see the dimming effect of the Earth’s outer penumbral shadow in the video,  just before the asteroid strikes the inner dark umbra and emerges back into eternal sunshine once again. Sitting on 2016 VA, and observer would have seen a total solar eclipse, as the bulk of the Earth passed between the asteroid and the Sun in an event not witnessed by the tiny world for thousands of years.

Such transits of asteroid through the Earth’s shadow have been observed before: 2012 XE54 crossed through the Earth’s shadow a few years back, and 2008 TC3 crossed through the Earth’s shadow before striking the Nubian desert in the early morning hours of October 7th, 2008.

Satellites in geostationary orbit also pull a similar vanishing act right around either equinox as well.

The orbit of 2016 VA. Iimage credit: NASA/JPL.
The orbit of 2016 VA. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

2016 VA is also a similar size to another famous space rock: the 20 metre asteroid that exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk the day after Valentine’s Day in 2013. 2016 VA gave us a miss, and won’t make another pass as close to the Earth again for this century.

To our knowledge, such a video capture of an asteroid crossing through Earth’s shadow is a first, or at least the first that we’ve seen circulated on ye ole Web.

The light curve of 2016 as it passed through the Earth's shadow. Image credit: Peter Birtwhistle, Great Shefford Observatory.
The light curve of 2016 as it passed through the Earth’s shadow. Image credit: Peter Birtwhistle, Great Shefford Observatory.

Congrats to the good folks at the Virtual Telescope Project for swinging into action so quickly, and providing us with an amazing view!

-Catch the closest Full Moon of the year (and for many years to come!) on November 14th live courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project.

Boulder Extraction and Robotic Arm Mechanisms For NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission Start Rigorous Testing at NASA Goddard

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – Rigorous testing has begun on the advanced robotic arm and boulder extraction mechanisms that are key components of the unmanned probe at the heart of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) now under development to pluck a multi-ton boulder off a near-Earth asteroid so that astronauts visiting later in an Orion crew capsule can harvest a large quantity of samples for high powered scientific analysis back on Earth. Universe Today inspected the robotic arm hardware utilizing “leveraged robotic technology” during an up close visit and exclusive interview with the engineering development team at NASA Goddard.

“The teams are making great progress on the capture mechanism that has been delivered to the robotics team at Goddard from Langley,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told Universe Today.

“NASA is developing these common technologies for a suite of missions like satellite servicing and refueling in low Earth orbit as well as autonomously capturing an asteroid about 100 million miles away,” said Ben Reed, NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager, during an exclusive interview and hardware tour with Universe Today at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland, regarding concepts and goals for the overall Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) initiative.

NASA is leveraging technology originally developed for satellite servicing such as with the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) currently on board the International Space Station (ISS) and repurposing them for the asteroid retrieval mission.

“Those are our two near term mission objectives that we are developing these technologies for,” Reed explained.

ARRM combines both robotic and human missions to advance the new technologies required for NASA’s agency wide ‘Journey to Mars’ objective of sending a human mission to the Martian system in the 2030s.

The unmanned Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) to grab a boulder is the essential first step towards carrying out the follow on sample retrieval with the manned Orion Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by the mid-2020s.

ARRM will use a pair of highly capable robotic arms to autonomously grapple a multi-ton (> 20 ton) boulder off the surface of a large near-Earth asteroid and transport it to a stable, astronaut accessible orbit around the Moon in cislunar space.

“Things are moving well. The teams have made really tremendous progress on the robotic arm and capture mechanism,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, told Universe Today.

Then an Orion crew capsule can fly to it and the astronauts will collect a large quantity of rock samples and gather additional scientific measurements.

“We are working on a system to rendezvous, capture and service different [target] clients using the same technologies. That is what we are working on in a nut shell,” Reed said.

This engineering design unit of the robotic servicing arm is under development to autonomously extract a boulder off an asteroid for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission and  is being tested at NASA Goddard.   It has seven degrees of freedom and mimics a human arm.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This engineering design unit of the robotic servicing arm is under development to autonomously extract a boulder off an asteroid for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission and is being tested at NASA Goddard. It has seven degrees of freedom and mimics a human arm. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Right now the plan is to launch ARRM by about December 2020,” Reed told me. But a huge amount of preparatory work across the US is required to turn NASA’s plan into reality.

Key mission enabling technologies are being tested right now with a new full scale engineering model of the ‘Robotic Servicing Arm’ and a full scale mockup of the boulder snatching ARRM Capture Module at NASA Goddard, in a new facility known as “The Cauldron.”

Capture Module comprising two robotic servicing arms and three boulder grappling contact and restraint system legs for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).   Credit: NASA
Capture Module comprising two robotic servicing arms and three boulder grappling contact and restraint system legs for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM). Credit: NASA
The ARRM capture module is comprised of two shorter robotic arms (separated by 180 degrees) and three lengthy contact and restraint system capture legs (separated by 120 degrees) attached to a cradle with associated avionics, computers and electronics and the rest of the spacecraft and solar electric power arrays.

“The robotic arm we have here now is an engineering development unit. The 2.2 meter-long arms can be used for assembling large telescopes, repairing a failed satellite, removing orbital debris and capturing an asteroid,” said Reed.

“There are two little arms and three big capture legs.”

“So, we are leveraging one technology development program into multiple NASA objectives.”

“We are working on common technologies that can service a legacy orbiting satellite, not designed to be serviced, and use those same technologies with some tweaking that we can go out with 100 million miles and capture an asteroid and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon.”

“Currently the [capture module] system can handle a boulder that’s up to about 3 x 4 x 5 meters in diameter.”

Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to a astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth's moon.  Credits: NASA
Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to a astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth’s moon. Credits: NASA

The Cauldron is a brand new Goddard facility for testing technologies and operations for multiple exploration and science missions, including satellite servicing and ARRM that just opened in June 2015 for the centers Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office.

Overall project lead for ARRM is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with numerous contributions from other NASA centers and industrial partners.

“This is an immersive development lab where we bring systems together and can do lifetime testing to simulate what’s in space. This is our robotic equivalent to the astronauts NBL, or neutral buoyancy lab,” Reed elaborated.

“So with this same robotic arm that can cut wires and thermal blankets and refuel an Earth sensing satellite, we can now have that same arm go out on a different mission and be able to travel out and pick up a multi-ton boulder and bring it back for astronauts to harvest samples from.”

“So that’s quite a technical feat!”

The Robotic Servicing Arm is a multi-jointed powerhouse designed to function like a “human arm” as much as possible. It builds on extensive prior research and development investment efforts conducted for NASA’s current Red Planet rovers and a flight-qualified robotic arm developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“The arm is capable of seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic the full functionally of a human arm. It has heritage from the arm on Mars right now on Curiosity as well as ground based programs from DARPA,” Reed told me.

“It has three degrees of freedom at our shoulder, two at our elbow and two more at the wrist. So I can hold the hand still and move the elbow.”

The arm will also be equipped with a variety of interchangeable “hands” that are basically tools to carry out different tasks with the asteroid such as grappling, drilling, sample gathering, imaging and spectrometric analysis, etc.

View of the robotic arm above and gripper tool below that initially grabs the asteroid boulder before the capture legs wrap around as planned for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will later dock with an Orion crew vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of the robotic arm above and gripper tool below that initially grabs the asteroid boulder before the capture legs wrap around as planned for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will later dock with an Orion crew vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The ARRM spacecraft will carefully study, characterize and photograph the asteroid in great detail for about a month before attempting the boulder capture.

Why does the arm need all this human-like capability?

“When we arrive at an asteroid that’s 100 million miles away, we are not going to know the fine local geometry until we arrive,” Reed explained to Universe Today.

“Therefore we need a flexible enough arm that can accommodate local geometries at the multi-foot scale. And then a gripper tool that can handle those geometry facets at a much smaller scale.”

“Therefore we chose seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic humans very much by design. We also need seven-degrees-of-freedom to conduct collision avoidance maneuvers. You can’t do that with a six-degree-of-freedom arm. It has to be seven to be a general purpose arm.”

How will the ARRM capture module work to snatch the boulder off the asteroid?

“So the idea is you come to the mother asteroid and touch down and make contact on the surface. Then you hold that position and the two arms reach out and grab the boulder.”

“Once its grabbed the boulder, then the legs straighten and pull the boulder off the surface.”

“Then the arms nestle the asteroid onto a cradle. And the legs then change from a contact system to become a restraint system. So the legs wrap around the boulder to restrain it for the 100 million mile journey back home.

“After that the little arms can let go – because the legs have wrapped around and are holding the asteroid.”

“So now the arm can also let go of the gripper system and pick up a different tool to do other things. For example they can collect a sample with another tool. And maybe assist an astronaut after the crew arrives.”

“During the 100 million mile journey back to lunar orbit they can be also be preparing the surface and cutting into it for later sample collection by the astronauts.”

Be sure to watch this video animation:

Since the actual asteroid encounter will occur very far away, the boulder grappling will have to be done fully autonomously since there will be no possibility for real time communications.

“The return time for communications is like about 30 minutes. So ‘human in the loop’ control is out of the question.

“Once we get into hover position over the landing site we hit the GO button. Then it will be very much like at Mars and the seven minutes of terror. It will take awhile to find out if it worked.”

Therefore the team at Goddard has already spent years of effort and practice sessions just to get ready for working with the early engineering version of the arm to maximize the probability of a successful capture.

“In this facility we put systems together to try and practice and rehearse and simulate as much of the mission as is realistically possible.”

“It took a lot of effort to get to this point, in the neighborhood of four years to get the simulation to behave correctly in real time with contact dynamics and the robotic systems. So the arm has to touch the boulder with force torque sensors and feed that into a computer to measure that and move the actuators to respond accordingly.”

“So the capture of the boulder is autonomous. The rest is teleoperated from the ground, but not the capture itself.”

How realistic are the rehearsals?

“We are practicing here by reaching out with the arm to grasp the client target using autonomous capture [procedures]. In space the client [target] is floating and maybe tumbling. So when we reach out with the arm to practice autonomous capture we make the client tumble and move – with the inertial properties of the target we are practicing on.”

“Now for known objects like satellites we know the mass precisely. And we can program all that inertial property data in very accurately to give us much more realistic simulations.”

“We learned from all our astronaut servicing experiences in orbit is that the more we know for the simulations, the easier and better the results are for the astronauts during an actual mission because you simulated all the properties.”

“But with this robotic mission to an asteroid there is no backup like astronauts. So we want to practice here at Goddard and simulate the space environment.”

ARRM will launch by the end of 2020 on either an SLS, Delta IV Heavy or a Falcon Heavy. NASA has not yet chosen the launch vehicle.

Several candidate asteroids have already been discovered and NASA has an extensive ongoing program to find more.

Orion crew capsule docks to NASA’s asteroid redirect vehicle grappling captured asteroid boulder orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA
Orion crew capsule docks to NASA’s asteroid redirect vehicle grappling captured asteroid boulder orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA

Again, this robotic technology was selected for development for ARRM because it has a lot in common with other objectives like fixing communications satellites, refueling satellites and building large telescopes in the future.

NASA is also developing other critical enabling technologies for the entire ARM project like solar electric propulsion that will be the subject of another article.

Therefore NASA is leveraging one technology development program into multiple spaceflight objectives that will greatly assist its plans to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s with the Orion crew module launched by the monster Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

The maiden uncrewed launch of the Orion/SLS stack is slated for November 2018.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

At NASA Goddard robotics lab Ben Reed/NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the robotic servicing arm and asteroid boulder capture mechanism being tested for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will dock with an Orion crew vehicle in lunar orbit by the mid 2020s for sample return collection. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
At NASA Goddard robotics lab Ben Reed/NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the robotic servicing arm and asteroid boulder capture mechanism being tested for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will dock with an Orion crew vehicle in lunar orbit by the mid 2020s for sample return collection. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

We’ve Found 10,000 Near-Earth Objects. How To Step Up The Search?

That pale white dot up there? No. 10,000 in a list of near-Earth objects. This rock, 2013 MZ5, was discovered June 18. It is 1,000 feet (300 meters) across and will not come anywhere near to threatening Earth, NASA assures us.

But what else is out there? The agency still hasn’t found every asteroid or comet that could come by Earth. To be sure, however, it’s really trying. But is there more NASA and other agencies can do to search? Tell us in the comments.

A bit of history: the first of these objects was discovered in 1898, but in recent decades we’ve been more systematic about finding them. This means we’ve been picking up the pace on discoveries.

Congress asked NASA in 2005 to find and catalog 90 per cent of NEOs that are larger than 500 feet (140 meters) in size, about enough to level a city. The agency says it has also found most of the very largest NEOs, those that are at least six-tenths of a mile (1 kilometer) across (and none so far discovered are a threat.)

That’s not to say smaller pieces wouldn’t do damage. Remember that Russian meteor this year that blew out windows and caused injuries? It probably was only 50 feet (15 meters) across.

The two main smoke trails left by the Russian meteorite as it passed over the city of Chelyabinsk. Credit: AP Photo/Chelyabinsk.ru
The two main smoke trails left by the Russian meteorite as it passed over the city of Chelyabinsk. Credit: AP Photo/Chelyabinsk.ru

Still, NASA says once it achieves its latest goal (which it is supposed to be by 2020), “the risk of an unwarned future Earth impact will be reduced to a level of only one per cent when compared to pre-survey risk levels. This reduces the risk to human populations, because once an NEO threat is known well in advance, the object could be deflected with current space technologies.”

The major surveys for NEOs in the United States are the University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey, the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS survey and the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Air Force and NASA. Worldwide, the current discovery rate is 1,000 per year.

In May, the European Space Agency also opened a new “NEO Coordination Centre” intended to be the one-stop shop for asteroid warnings in Europe (and worldwide, of course.) More details here.

EDIT: And NASA also recently issued an Asteroid Grand Challenge to private industry to seek solutions to find these space rocks. Check out more information here.

What more can be done to find and track threatening space rocks? Let us know below.

Credit: NASA

How to Spot Near-Earth Asteroid 1998 QE2 This Week

A large asteroid visits our fair corner of the solar system this week, and with a little planning you may just be able to spot it.

Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) 285263 (1998 QE2) will pass 5.8 million kilometres from the Earth on Friday, May 31st at 20:59 Universal Time (UT) or 4:59PM EDT. Discovered in 1998 during the LIncoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey looking for such objects, 1998 QE2 will shine at magnitude +10 to +12 on closest approach. Estimates of its size vary from 1.3 to 2.9 kilometres, with observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2010 placing the ballpark figure towards the high end of the scale at 2.7 kilometres in diameter.

1998 QE2 would fit nicely with room to spare in Oregon’s 8 kilometre-wide Crater Lake.

Though this passage is over 15 times as distant as the Earth’s Moon, the relative size of this space rock makes it of interest. This is the closest approach of 1998 QE2 for this century, and there are plans to study it with both the Arecibo and Goldstone radio telescopes to get a better description of its size and rotation as it sails by. Expect to see radar maps of 1998 QE2 by this weekend.

“Asteroid 1998 QE2 will be an outstanding radar imaging target… we expect to obtain a series of high-resolution images that could reveal a wealth of surface features,” said astronomer and principal JPL investigator Lance Benner.

A recent animation of 1998 QE2 from earlier this month. (Credit: Nick Howes & Ernesto Guido).
A recent animation of 1998 QE2 from earlier this month.
(Credit: Nick Howes & Ernesto Guido).

An Amor-class asteroid, 1998 QE2 has an orbit of 3.77 years that takes it from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to just exterior of the Earth’s orbit. 1998 QE2 currently comes back around to our vicinity roughly every 15 years, completing about 4 orbits as it does so. Its perihelion exterior to our own makes it no threat to the Earth. This week’s passage is the closest for 1998 QE2 until a slightly closer pass on 0.038 Astronomical Units on May 27th, 2221. Note that on both years, the Earth is just over a month from aphelion (its farthest point from the Sun) which falls in early July.

Of course, the “QE2” designation has resulted in the inevitable comparisons to the size of the asteroid in relation to the Queen Elizabeth II cruise liner. Asteroid designations are derived from the sequence in which they were discovered in a given year. 1998 QE2 was the 55th asteroid discovered in the period running from August 1st to 16th 1998.

Perhaps we could start measuring asteroids in new and creative units, such as “Death Stars” or “Battlestars?”

But the good news is, you can search for 1998 QE2 starting tonight. The asteroid is currently at +12th magnitude in the constellation Centaurus and will be cruising through Hydra on its way north into Libra Friday on May 31st. You’ll need a telescope to track the asteroid as it will never top +10th magnitude, which is the general threshold for binocular viewing under dark skies. Its relative southern declination at closest approach means that 1998 QE2 will be best observed from northern latitudes of +35° southward. The farther south you are, the higher it will be placed in the sky after dusk.

A wide field view of the passage of 1998 QE2 this week, from May 27th through June 2nd. (Created by the author in Starry Night).
A wide field view of the passage of 1998 QE2 this week, from May 27th through June 2nd. (Created by the author in Starry Night).

Still, if you can spot the constellation Libra, it’s worth a try. Many observers in the southern U.S. fail to realize that southern hemisphere sites like Omega Centauri in the constellation Centaurus are visible in the evening low to the south at this time of year. Libra sits on the meridian at local midnight due south for northern hemisphere observers, making it a good time to try for the tiny asteroid.

Visually, 1998 QE2 will look like a tiny, star-like point in the eye-piece of a telescope. Use low power and sketch or photograph the field of view and compare the positions of objects about 10 minutes apart. Has anything moved? We caught sight of asteroid 4179 Toutatis last year using this method.

A closeup look at the passage of 1998 QE2, covering a 48 hour span centered on closest approach on May 31st. (Created by the author in Starry Night).
A closeup look at the passage of 1998 QE2, covering a 48 hour span centered on closest approach on May 31st. (Created by the author in Starry Night).

1998 QE2 will also pass near some interesting objects that will serve as good “guideposts” to track its progress.

We find the asteroid about 5° north of the bright +2.5 magnitude star Iota Centauri on the night of May 28th. It then crosses the border into the constellation Hydra about 6° south of the +3 magnitude star Gamma Hydrae (Star Trek fans will recall that this star lies in the Neutral Zone) on May 29th. Keep a careful eye on 1998 QE2 as it passes within 30’ (about the diameter of a Full Moon) of the +8th magnitude galaxy Messier 83 centered on May 28th at 19:00 UT/3:00 PM EDT. This will provide a fine opportunity to construct a stop-motion animated .gif of the asteroid passing by the galaxy.

Another good opportunity to pinpoint the asteroid comes on the night on Thursday, May 30th as it passes within 30’ of the +3.3 magnitude star Pi  Hydrae.

From there, it’s on to closest approach day. 1998 QE2 crosses into the constellation Libra early on Friday May 31st. The Moon will be at Last Quarter phase and won’t rise until well past local midnight, aiding in your quest.

At its closest approach, 1998 QE2 have an apparent motion of about 1 angular degree every 3 hours, or about 2/3rds the diameter of a Full Moon every hour. This isn’t quite fast enough to see in real time like asteroid 2012 DA14 was earlier this year, but you should notice its motion after about 10 minutes at medium power. Passing at ~465 Earth diameters distant, 1998 QE2 will show a maximum parallax displacement of just a little over 7 arc minutes at closest approach.

For telescopes equipped with setting circles, knowing the asteroid’s precise position is crucial. This allows you to aim at a fixed position just ahead of its path and “ambush” it as it drifts by. For the most precise positions in right ascension and declination, be sure to check out JPL’s ephemeris generator for 1998 QE2.

After its closest passage, 1998 QE2 will pass between the +3.3 & +2.7 magnitude stars Brachium (Sigma Librae) and Zubenelgenubi (Alpha Librae) around 4:00 UT on June 1st. Dedicated observers can continue to follow its northeastward trek into early June.

Slooh will also be carrying the passage of 1998 QE2 on Friday, May 31st starting at 5:00 PM EDT/21:00 UT.

Of course, the hypothetical impact of a space rock the size of 1998 QE2 would spell a very bad day for the Earth. The Chicxulub impact basin off of the Yucatán Peninsula was formed by a 10 kilometre impactor about 4 times larger than 1998 QE2 about 65 million years ago. We can be thankful that 1998 QE2 isn’t headed our way as we watch it drift silently by this week. Hey, unlike the dinosaurs, WE have a space program…   perhaps, to paraphrase science fiction author Larry Niven, we can hear the asteroid whisper as we track its progress across the night sky, asking humanity “How’s that space program coming along?”

Orion Capsule Accelerating to 2014 Launch and Eventual Asteroid Exploration

NASA is picking up the construction pace on the inaugural space-bound Orion crew capsule at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida – and accelerating towards blastoff on the unmanned Exploration Flight Test-1 mission (EFT-1) slated for September 2014 atop a mammoth Delta 4 Heavy Booster which will one day lead to deep space human forays to Asteroids and Mars.

Orion was at the center of an impressive and loud beehive of action packed assembly activities by technicians during my recent exclusive tour of the spacecraft to inspect ongoing progress inside the renovated Orion manufacturing assembly facility in the Operations and Checkout Building (O & C) at KSC.

“We plan to power up Orion for the first time this summer,” said Scott Wilson in an exclusive interview with Universe Today beside the Orion vehicle. Wilson is Orion’s Production Operations manager for NASA at KSC.

The Orion EFT-1 flight is a critical first step towards achieving NASA’s new goal of capturing and retrieving a Near Earth Asteroid for eventual visit by astronauts flying aboard an Orion vehicle by 2021 – if NASA’s budget request is approved.

An artist concept shows Orion as it will appear in space for the Exploration Flight Test-1 attached to a Delta IV second stage.   Credit: NASA
An artist concept shows Orion as it will appear in space for the Exploration Flight Test-1 attached to a Delta IV second stage. Credit: NASA

KSC will have a leading role in NASA’s asteroid retrieval project that could occur some four years earlier than President Obama’s targeted goal of 2025 for a human journey to an asteroid.

Capturing an asteroid and dispatching astronauts aboard Orion to collect precious rock samples will aid our scientific understanding of the formation of the Solar System as well as bolster Planetary Defense strategies – the importance of which is gathering steam following the unforeseen Russian meteor strike in February which injured over 1200 people and damaged over 3000 buildings.

Dozens of highly skilled workers were busily cutting metal, drilling holes, bolting screws and attaching a wide range of mechanical and electrical components and bracketry to the Orion pressure vessel’s primary structure as Universe Today conducted a walk around of the EFT-1 capsule, Service Module and assorted assembly gear inside the O&C.

Orion EFT-1 crew cabin and full scale mural showing Orion Crew Module atop Service Module inside the O & C Building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion EFT-1 crew cabin and full scale mural showing Orion Crew Module atop Service Module inside the O & C Building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor for Orion. A growing number of employees hired by Lockheed and United Space Alliance (USA) are “working 2 shifts per day 7 days a week to complete the assembly work by year’s end,” said Jules Schneider, Orion Project manager for Lockheed Martin at KSC, during an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

I watched as the workers were boring hundreds of precision holes and carefully tightening the high strength steel bolts to attach the top to bottom ring segments made of titanium to the main load paths on the pressure vessel.

“We are installing lots of wiring to support ground test instrumentation for the strain gauges as well as microphones and accelerometers.”

“The simulated back shell panels are being installed now as guides,” said Wilson. “The real back shell panels and heat shield will be installed onto the structure later this year.”

“The heat shield is the biggest one ever built, 5 meters in diameter. Its bigger than Apollo and Mars Science Lab. It varies in thickness from about 1 to 3 inches depending on the expected heating.”

“We are making good progress on the Orion Service module too. The outer panels will be installed soon,” Wilson explained.

The olive green colored crew module was clamped inside the birdcage-like Structural Assembly Jig during my visit. The Jig has multiple degrees of freedom to maneuver the capsule and more easily enable the detailed assembly work.

“The technicians are installing strain gauges and secondary structure components to get it ready for the upcoming structural loads test,” said Schneider.

“After that we need to finish installing all the remaining parts of the primary structure and a significant portion of the secondary structure.”

For the next stage of processing, the EFT-1 crew module has been lifted out of the birdcage Jig and moved onto an adjacent dedicated work station for loads testing at the Operations and Checkout building.

As reported in my earlier article the Orion pressure vessel sustained three ‘hairline” cracks in the lower half of the aft bulkhead during proof pressure testing of the vessel and welds at the O & C.

I was observing as the technicians were carefully milling out the miniscule bulkhead fractures.

Workers have now installed custom built replacement brackets and reinforcing doublers on the aft bulkhead.

“We will do the protocol loads test with pressure using about 9 different load cases the vehicle will see during the EFT-1 flight. Chute deployment and jettison motor deployment is a driving load case,” said Schneider.

“We will also squeeze the capsule,” said Wilson.

“That structural loads testing of the integrated structure will take about 6 to 8 weeks. There are thousands of gauges on the vehicle to collect data,” Schneider elaborated.

“The test data will be compared to the analytical modeling to see where we are at and how well it matched the predictions – it’s like acceptance testing.”

“After we finish the structural loads tests we can than start the assembly and integration of all the other subsystems.”

“When we are done with the ground testing program then we remove all the ground test instrumentation and start installing all the actual flight systems including harnesses and instrumentation, the plumbing and everything else,” Schneider explained.

Orion hardware built by contractors and subcontractors from virtually every state all across the U.S is being delivered to KSC for installation onto EFT-1. Orion is a nationwide human spaceflight project.

Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed. Credit: NASA.
Concept of Spacecraft with Asteroid Capture Mechanism Deployed. Credit: NASA.

During the unmanned Orion EFT-1 mission, the capsule will fly on a two orbit test flight to an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface, farther than any human spacecraft has gone in 40 years.

It will then fire braking rockets to plunge back to Earth, re-enter the atmosphere at about 20,000 MPH and test numerous spacecrafts systems, the heat shield and all three parachutes for an ocean splashdown.

Meanwhile other Orion EFT-1 components such as the emergency Launch Abort System (LAS) and Service Module are coming together – read my Orion follow-up reports.

Humans have not ventured beyond low Earth orbit since the Apollo Moon landings ended in 1972. Orion will change that.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Orion, Antares, SpaceX, Curiosity and NASA robotic and human spaceflight missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus “The Space Shuttle Finale and the Future of NASA – Orion, SpaceX, Antares and more!” NEAF Astronomy Forum, Rockland Community College, Suffern, NY. 3-4 PM Sat & Sunday. Display table all day.

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

Orion EFT-1 crew cabin construction ongoing at the Kennedy Space Center which is due to blastoff in September 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer
Orion EFT-1 crew cabin construction ongoing at the Kennedy Space Center which is due to blastoff in September 2014 atop a Delta 4 Heavy rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer

Asteroid 2012 DA14: Observing Prospects and How to See It

2012-DA14

Mark your calendars: this Friday, February 15, 2013, is the close flyby of Near Earth Asteroid 2012 DA14, passing just 27,630 kilometers (17,168 miles) from the surface of the Earth. About 50 meters (164 feet) in size, 2012 DA14 and its close shave marks the the first time there has been passage of an asteroid this close that we’ve known a year beforehand. Yes, it passes within the ring of geosynchronous satellites girdling the Earth. No, there’s no danger, either to said satellites or the Earth, so Bruce Willis can stay home for this one.  But right behind those inquiries, the question we most frequently get is… how can I see it?

The orbital path of asteroid 2012  DA14 as seen face on (top) & near edge on (bottom). (Credit: JPL Small Body Database Browser).
The orbital path of asteroid 2012 DA14 as seen face on (top) & near edge on (bottom). (Credit: JPL Small Body Database Browser).

The great news is that an advanced observer can indeed catch 2012 DA14 on its close pass the night of February 15th… with a little skill and luck. Now for the bad news; the asteroid won’t be visible without binoculars or a telescope, and North America will largely miss out.

2012 DA14 will be really moving across the sky on closest approach, covering 0.8° per minute, or the diameter of a Full Moon every 45 seconds!  With its passage closer to the Earth than the ring of geosynchronous satellites, it’s worth treating the passage of the asteroid as a satellite and hunting it down accordingly. Catching and watching such a pass can be an unforgettable experience; not many objects in the sky show such swift motion in real time. In fact, 2012 DA14 will span the celestial sphere from declination -60° to +60° in just 4 hours!  Needless to say, its passage through the Earth’s gravity well will alter its orbit considerably; most planetarium software programs do not account for this and thus will introduce a large error for a heliocentric object. Compounding the dilemma is the large amount of parallactic shift of such a nearby object. As viewed from the span of the Earth, 2012 DA14 will have a parallax of ~20° at greatest approach!

The path of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the celestial sphere on February 15th. (Created by Author).
The path of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the celestial sphere on February 15th. (Created by Author).

But two sites on the web can help you with the search. One is Heavens-Above,  which currently has a link on its main page to custom generate sky charts for specific locations for 2012 DA14 (make sure you’re logged in as a registered user and your observing location is set correctly). Another option is to generate an ephemeris customized for your location from the JPL Solar System Dynamics Horizons Web-Interface.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 is approaching the planet Earth from “down under,” and moving almost exactly parallel to the 12 hour line in right ascension. In fact, it’ll cross very near the equinoctial point in Virgo (one of the two points where the celestial equator and the ecliptic cross) shortly after its closest approach on Friday, February 15th at 19:25UT. The asteroid will be at the local zenith (straight overhead) for observers in the pre-dawn hours located in western Indonesia at closest approach. Australia and eastern Asia will have a shot at seeing the asteroid as it whizzes through the sky in the early morning hours of February 16th local. Observers in western Asia, Africa and Europe will see the asteroid lower to the east on the night of the 15th. Note that 2012 DA14 juuuuuust misses Earth’s shadow (see strip chart) at closest approach. The shadow of our fair planet is ~20° across at the distance of the geosynchronous satellites; had it passed about a month later, we would have seen an “asteroid eclipse!” In fact, “eclipse season” for geosynchronous satellites occurs right around the equinoxes and is only a month away.

The “banana strip chart” shows the path of 2012 DA14 from the time it reaches a magnitude brighter than +10 at 17:40UT until it dips back down below it at 22:10UT on the same night. It also shows the width of uncertainty for its position due to the aforementioned 20° of parallax, and the points that it enters and departs the distance sphere of the geosynchronous satellites. Keep in mind, these satellites still orbit roughly hundred times higher than the International Space Station!

A good search strategy to catch 2012 DA14 is to actually to treat it like you’re hunting for a faint satellite. Find the time that it’s crossing a set declination and begin scanning with binoculars in right ascension back and forth until you “ambush” your astronomical prey moving slowly against the starry background. If using a telescope, use the lowest power and widest field of view that the instrument will allow. We’ve used this technique in the past to sweep up Near Earth Asteroids 2005 YU55 and 99942 Apophis and routinely use it to hunt for satellites fainter than naked eye visibility. At closest approach, asteroid 2012 DA14 will shine at around +8th magnitude as it crosses the Bowl of Virgo northward past Denebola in the constellation Leo.

Recent measurements early this month conducted by astronomers at the Las Campanas observatory in Chile refined the orbit of 2012 DA14, placing its February 15th passage just 45 kilometres closer to Earth than previously calculated but still well outside the threat zone. Campaigns are underway to refine measurements of its orbit even further on this pass. We won’t get another close pass of 2012 DA14 until February 16th, 2046 when the asteroid misses us at about twice the distance of the Moon. An impact has been ruled out for this century. Predictions get less certain the further you project them into time, and 2012 DA14 will definitely be a space rock worth keeping tabs on!