Captured on Oct. 20 during the OSIRIS-REx mission’s Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection, the NASA spacecraft approached and touches down on asteroid Bennu’s surface. The dramatic sampling event, a NASA first,  brought the spacecraft down to sample site Nightingale.  The team on Earth received confirmation of successful touchdown at 6:08 p.m. EDT. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

Over 200 million miles away,  NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Tuesday unfurled its robotic arm and descended to the surface of the asteroid Bennu.  It appeared to crush some rock as it touched down, quickly fired some nitrogen gas to kick up the sample and then after 5 or 6 seconds it flew away to safety after a back-away burn.

One day after the “tag,” NASA officials announced that the sample collection appeared to have been it to be a successful,  and they released images and video of the dramatic scoop.  The spacecraft touched down within three feet of the Nightingale target location and NASA officials said that most of the sample collection occurred in the first three seconds.

The sample will consist of grains of a surface that has experienced none of the ever-active geology on Earth,  no modifications caused by life,  and little of the erosion and weathering.  In other words, it will be a sample of the very early solar system from which our planet arose.

The asteroid visit is the first ever accomplished by NASA, following in the path set by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and its two Hayabusa missions.

“This amazing first for NASA demonstrates how an incredible team from across the country came together and persevered through incredible challenges to expand the boundaries of knowledge,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Our industry, academic, and international partners have made it possible to hold a piece of the most ancient solar system in our hands.”

Artist rendering for OSIRIS-REX spacxecrsft as it approaches the asteroid Bennu to collect a sample and quickly depart. The “tag” took place on Oct. 20. (NASA)

While it remains somewhat unclear how much sample was collected by OSIRIS-REx, the mission’s principal investigator,  Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, said he was optimistic.

The sampling mechanism touched down in part on a rock about 8 inches wide, something that could have prevented the gathering mechanism from pressing up properly against the surface.

“I must have watched about a hundred times last night,” Lauretta, said during a news conference on Wednesday.

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Surprising Insights Into the Asteroid Bennu’s Past, as OSIRIS-REx Prepares For a Sample-Collecting “Tag”

Artist rendering of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft as it will approach the asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of ancient, pristine solar system material. The  pick-up”tag” is scheduled for Oct. 20. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Arizona)

Long before there was an Earth, asteroids large and small were orbiting our young sun.  Among them was one far enough out from the sun to contain water ice, as well as organic compounds with lots of carbon.  In its five billion years or so as an object,  the asteroid was hit and broken apart by other larger asteroids, probably grew some more as smaller asteroids hit it,  and then was smashed to bits again many millions of years ago.  Some of it might have even landed on Earth.

The product of this tumultuous early history is the asteroid now called Bennu, and the destination for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) mission.  On October 20, the spacecraft will make its dramatic final descent, will touch the ground long enough to collect some samples of the surface, and then will in the months ahead return home with its prized catch.

The sample will consist of grains of a surface that have experienced none of the ever-active geology on Earth,  no modifications caused by life,  and little of the erosion and weathering.  In other words, it will be a sample of the very early solar system from which our planet arose.

“This will be our first chance to look at an ancient, carbon-rich environment – the most pristine example of the chemistry of the very early solar system,” said Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Space Flight Center and a co-investigator of the OSIRIS-REx team.  “Anything as ancient on early Earth would have been modified many times over.”

“But at Bennu we’ll see the solar system, and the Earth,  as it was chemically before all those changes took place.  This will be the kind of pristine pre-biotic chemistry that life emerged from.”

This image of Bennu was taken by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a distance of around 50 miles (80 km).
(NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

Bennu is an unusual asteroid.  It orbits relatively close to Earth — rather than in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — and that’s one of several main reasons why it was selected for a visit.  It is also an asteroid with significant amounts of primeval carbon and organics, which is gold for scientists eager to understand the early solar system, planet formation and the origin of life on Earth.… Read more

Asteroid Remains Around Dead Stars Reveal the Likely Fate of Our Solar System

Artist concept of an asteroid breaking up. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

June 30th has been designated “Asteroid Day” to promote awareness of these small members of our solar system. But while asteroids are often discussed in the context of the risk they might pose to the Earth, their chewed up remains around other stars may also reveal the fate of our solar system.

It is 6.5 billion years into our future. The sun has fused hydrogen into a core of heavier helium. Compressed by its own gravity, the helium core releases heat and the sun begins to swell. It is the end of our star’s life, but what will happen to the solar system?

While very massive stars end their element-fusing days in a colossal explosion known as a supernovae, the majority of stars in our galaxy will take a less dramatic exit.

Our sun’s helium core will fuse to form carbon but there is not enough mass to achieve the crushing compression needed for the creation of heavier elements. Instead, the outer layers of the dying star will be blown away to leave a dense remnant with half the mass of our current sun, but squeezed down to the size of the Earth. This is a white dwarf; the most common of all stellar ends.

The life cycle of our sun

The white dwarf rapidly cools to become a dim twinkle in the sky. Within a few million years, our white dwarf will be less luminous that the sun today. Within 100 million years, it will be dimmer by a factor of 100. But examination of white dwarfs in our galaxy reveals this gentle dimming of the lights is not as peaceful as first appears.

The remnants of stars too light to fuse carbon, white dwarfs have atmospheres that should be thin shells of residue hydrogen and helium. Instead, observations have detected 20 different heavy elements in this envelope of gases that include rock-forming elements such as silicon and iron and volatiles such as carbon and nitrogen.

Infrared observations of over forty white dwarfs have additionally revealed compact dusty discs circling the dead stars. Sitting within the radius of a regular star, these could not have formed before the star shrank into a white dwarf. These must be the remains of what occurred as the star morphed from a regular fusion burner into a white dwarf.

This grizzly tale begins with the star’s expansion.… Read more

Ceres, Asteroids And Us

Ceres, as imaged by the spacecraft Dawn on a high altitude orbit 900 miles from the surface. The several bright spots on the asteroid have been of particular interest to scientists and are believed to contain salts and ice. The image is mosaic formed from a series of images.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

For most of us, asteroids exist primarily as a threat.  An asteroid that landed around the Yucatan peninsula, after all, is generally considered to have set into motion the changes that resulted in the elimination of the dinosaurs.

Other large in-coming asteroids laid waste to swaths of Siberia in 1908, dug the world’s largest crater (118 mile wide)  in South Africa long ago, and formed the Chesapeake Bay a mere 35 million years past.  And another large asteroid will almost certainly threaten Earth again some day.

There is, however, a reverse and possibly life-enhancing side to the asteroid story, one that is becoming more clear and intriguing as we learn more about them where they live.  Asteroids not only contain a lot of water — some of it possibly delivered long ago to a dry Earth — but they contain some pretty complex organic molecules, the building blocks of life.

The latest chapter in the asteroid saga is being written about Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system and recently declared to also be a dwarf planet (like Pluto.)

Using data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, a team led by the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome and  the University of California, Los Angeles identified a variety of complex organic compounds, amino acids and nucleobases  — the kind that are the building blocks of life.  The mission has also detected signs of a possible subsurface ocean as well as cryovolcanos, which spit out ice, water, methane and other gases instead of molten rock.

“This discovery of a locally high concentration of organics is intriguing, with broad implications for the astrobiology community,” said Simone Marchi, a senior research scientist at Southwest Research Institute and one of the authors of the paper in Science. “Ceres has evidence of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and now organic materials.”

He said that the organic-rich areas include carbonates and ammonia-based minerals, which are Ceres’ primary constituents.  Their presence along with the organics makes it unlikely that the organics arrived via another asteroid.

In an accompanying comment in the Feb. 16 edition of Science, Michael Küppers of the European Space Astronomy Center in Madrid makes the case that Ceres might once have even been habitable.… Read more

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