The Latest Photos From Hayabusa2’s Mission to Asteroid Ryugu Are Here

By Bill Andrews | August 22, 2019 1:00 pm
The image shows the first image acquired by the DLR-developed MASCAM camera system during Hayabusa2’s descent, shortly after separation from the landing module at a height of 41 meters. (Credit: Jaumann et al., Science (2019))

The solar system is a crowded place. Earth may be the only planet with humans on it, but many worlds are home to robots — rovers and landers and orbiters, gathering data for astronomers. Asteroid (162173) Ryugu joined them last summer, and has been playing host to the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2. The mission has already collected lots of great data.

Now, according to a report Thursday in Science, we have some more information on the diamond-shaped Ryugu. Hayabusa2’s Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) lander, which touched down last October, snapped several pics along the way. An international team of scientists analyzed them to gain new insights into the ancient world, helping them understand its violent past and even learning a little about the ancient solar system.

Rocky Landing

MASCOT’s descent onto Ryugu was surprisingly low tech: Hayabusa2, already in orbit, simply “let go” of the lander and let it fall to the surface. The hardy device, packed with a camera (named MASCam) and other instruments, tumbled down slowly, freefalling about 134 feet for roughly 6 minutes before landing with a thud. It bounced another 56 feet before finally coming to a rest.

This was all on purpose. The German Aerospace Center designed MASCOT for the rough journey, and it snapped photos the whole way. The lander also carried a spinning weight which could re-orient and even move the tiny craft, allowing it to gather data from various locations. And thanks to the tried and true methods of flash photography, the machine could even snap pics in the dark. After more than 17 hours, and a few more hops, MASCOT’s batteries died out and this part of the mission was complete.

This image shows that MASCOT moved turbulently towards Ryugu, as expected, performing turns and rollovers. The images show a huge boulder, which occupies the eastern (right) edge of the image and is several tens of meters in length. (Credit: Jaumann et al., Science (2019))

Now, researchers have combined and analyzed the photos — along with data from Hayabusa2 — to carefully reconstruct MASCOT’s journey above and along the surface of Ryugu, allowing them to put close-up photos of the asteroid’s surface in context.

“The MASCam images acquired during descent and bouncing reveal a surface covered with rocks and boulders of different lithologies” or characteristics, the authors write. “Rocks appear either bright, with smooth faces and sharp edges, or dark, with a cauliflower-like, crumbly surface.” The distribution of both was pretty much even over all the areas MASCam captured.

The images also showed a marked lack of finer rocks, like dust or sand. Ryugu is pretty much just a collection of rocks and boulders, with nothing smaller currently on the surface.

Ryugu Research

These findings are telling. The dichotomy of rocks backs up previous ideas that Ryugu had a violent birth. Maybe, the authors suggest, the asteroid is the result of two parent bodies crashing into each other, explaining the two types of rocky materials strewn everywhere. Or, perhaps it formed from one body with drastically different internal temperature and pressure conditions, leading to a “catastrophic disruption and redistribution, also resulting in two types of material.”

This image was taken shortly after the first contact with the ground, just a few meters above the surface of Ryugu. Just as in the images from higher altitudes, no fine material, known as regolith, can be seen, even in the immediate vicinity of the surface. (Credit: Jaumann et al., Science (2019))

Studying the compositions of these rocks also revealed small bright “inclusions,” common in meteorites believed to come from asteroids. Because watery environments tend to destroy inclusions, their presence on Ryugu suggest that this asteroid’s past was likely a drier one.

Finally, there’s that lack of finer materials. Simple friction and other forces in space should result in such smaller particles, so their absence suggests some process is removing them — but the authors aren’t sure what that could be. “The absence of dust is not easily explained,” they write.

Ryugu is a near-Earth asteroid, meaning its orbit takes it near our planet’s vicinity. The better we understand its makeup and what’s happening to its surface, the better prepared we ever are in case one of the thousands of other NEAs ever wander dangerously close. Asteroids are also remarkably well preserved, since there’s not much to erode them out in space. So by studying them, astronomers are also studying what conditions were like in the solar system’s earliest days, when most asteroids formed.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

Audiobooks or Reading? To Our Brains, It Doesn’t Matter

By Jennifer Walter | August 22, 2019 12:51 pm
brain maps of reading and listening
These color-coded maps of the brain show the semantic similarities during listening (top) and reading (bottom). (Credit: Fatma Deniz)

If you don’t have time to sit and read a physical book, is listening to the audio version considered cheating? To some hardcore book nerds, it could be. But new evidence suggests that, to our brains, reading and hearing a story might not be so different.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley scanned the brains of nine participants while they read and listened to a series of tales from “The Moth Radio Hour.” After analyzing how each word was processed in the the brain’s cortex, they created maps of the participants’ brains, noting the different areas helped interpret the meaning of each word.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts

8 New Fast Radio Burst Sources Offer New Opportunities for Insights

By Mara Johnson-Groh | August 21, 2019 4:31 pm
Neutron Star
An artist’s illustration of a neutron star, a proposed source for fast radio bursts. (Credit: Casey Reed – Penn State University/Wikimedia Commons)

Fast radio bursts are one of the most puzzling phenomena in astrophysics. But a new discovery of eight new sources for them might help scientists figure out what’s causing these intense outbursts of energy coming from distant galaxies.

The newly discovered bursts are from repeating sources, meaning they were observed to burst multiple times. Previously, only two repeating fast radio bursts had been observed. The new observations suggest that repeating bursts are more common than previously thought.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: cosmology, physics

3 Earth-sized Planets Found Around One of Earth’s Nearest Neighbors

By Mara Johnson-Groh | August 21, 2019 4:14 pm
GJ 1061 is a cool red dwarf similar to the star TRAPPIST-1. This artist’s concept imagines a view from the surface of one of TRAPPIST-1’s multiple exoplanets. (Credit: M. Kornmesser/ESO)

There is a triplet of Earth-sized planet candidates orbiting a star just 12 light-years away, a new study has found. And one appears to be in the habitable zone.

All three candidates are thought to be at least 1.4 to 1.8 times the mass of Earth, and orbit the star every three to 13 days, which would put the entire system well within Mercury’s 88 day orbit of the Sun. The planet orbiting the star every 13 days, dubbed planet d, is most interesting to scientists — it falls within the star’s habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface.  

Exploring Our Neighborhood

Bringing the universe to your door. We’re excited to announce Astronomy magazine’s new Space & Beyond subscription box — a quarterly adventure, curated with an astronomy-themed collection in every box. Learn More >>
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SPONSORED: Launching the ‘Space & Beyond’ Subscription Box

By David J. Eicher | August 20, 2019 4:45 pm

I was 14 years old when I first saw Saturn through a telescope, its rings glowing a vibrant yellow-orange. In that moment, the seemingly two-dimensional landscape of Earth’s surface was irreversibly transformed. From then on, I was hooked on the night sky. I was no longer just a kid from suburban Ohio, I was a resident of a vast cosmos waiting to be explored. Who knew that you could just walk into a backyard and look up, with a modest telescope, and unlock the secrets of the universe?

A few years later, I launched my own magazine about the night sky and, soon after, joined the staff of Astronomy, the sister publication of Discover. It was at the dawning of a new golden age of astronomy, full of scientific breakthroughs, from the discovery of dark energy and how the universe will end, to fresh clues about how life started on Earth – and, just maybe, spread across the universe. Today, SpaceX, Blue Origin and other spaceflight pioneers are drawing a new generation into the fold. These new space innovators could take us to places we’ve only dreamed about.

Since its inception, Astronomy magazine has offered readers a ticket to travel into this world. Now, we’re taking the next step with the launch of Astronomy’s Space & Beyond subscription box. Each box has a unique theme and is carefully curated by our editors to expand your understanding of the cosmos and appreciation for your place in it.

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— David J. Eicher, Editor, Astronomy

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Astronomers Discover a Second Giant Planet In a Nearby Star System

By Erica Naone | August 20, 2019 4:11 pm
beta pictoris b
Beta Pictoris c, the large planet in the foreground of this artist’s concept, orbits the star Beta Pictoris much more closely than Beta Pictoris b, which is a similarly massive planet located farther out in the system. (Credit: P. Rubini/A.M. Lagrange)

The Beta Pictoris system swirls with activity — a dusty disk of debriscomets falling toward the central star, and at least one giant planet. And now, astronomers have uncovered evidence for yet another planetary Goliath, some nine times the mass of Jupiter, lurking within the mysterious system.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets

Pollution May Be a Hidden Factor in Mental Illness, Study Finds

By Megan Schmidt | August 20, 2019 3:51 pm
Air quality
(Credit: Shutterstock)

The roots of mental illness are still a mystery. But researchers think our mental health is shaped by a combination of factors, like genetics, our developmental environment and our life experiences.

But there’s one factor that scientists say may have gone unnoticed. It appears that where we live, and how polluted it is, can increase our likelihood of developing a mental illness.

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Scientists Develop a Blood Test That Predicts Risk of Death

By Roni Dengler | August 20, 2019 10:45 am
(Credit: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock)

If you’ve ever wondered how likely you are to die in the next five to 10 years, scientists may now have an answer for you. Researchers identified 14 molecules in blood that are associated with dying from any cause. They say a score based on the molecules can predict one’s risk of death. But the ominous foretelling is not all bad. Scientists say it may encourage lifestyle interventions and help with treatment decisions.

“The association of our biomarker score with mortality is so strong,” study author P. Eline Slagboom, a Dutch expert in aging and human longevity, said in an email. 

She added that the find was particularly startling “given that it is only based on 14 metabolic markers in blood measured at a single point in the life of individuals.” 

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: medical technology

How A Warm Bath Or Shower Helps You Get to Sleep

By Roni Dengler | August 20, 2019 9:28 am
A warm bath before bed can help you get to sleep, research shows. (Credit: MyImages – Micha/Shutterstock)

About 30 percent of Americans have trouble sleeping. Shahab Haghayegh, a University of Texas biomedical engineer, was one of them. Sleep eluded him. “I always had a hard time fall[ing] asleep,” he told Discover via email.

Over the counter medications like the hormone melatonin and Unisom, a sedating anti-histamine, can help people get to sleep. But the medicines aren’t long-term solutions for chronic sleep problems. Haghayegh wanted to find a way to get better sleep without relying on medication.

Now, in a new study in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, Haghayegh and team say they’ve found a simple solution. Taking a warm bath or shower one to two hours before heading to bed can help people get better rest, faster. But the researchers say timing is key. A rejuvenating dunk too early or too close to bedtime won’t help.

Seizing Slumber

There’s a lot of research suggesting warm baths make drifting off to slumber easier. Many involve surveys and questionnaires from people who have trouble sleeping. But Haghayegh wanted more definitive numbers. He and his team searched through nearly 4,000 publications on the subject to look for hard evidence. They found 17 studies that included the original data and assessed how a warm shower or bath on its own affected a full night’s rest.

After a comprehensive examination of the studies, they concluded that warm baths or showers before bed really do objectively improve sleep. In the studies, people reported having a good night’s sleep after a warm bath. They also fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer thanks to the sleep aid. But critically, timing was everything.

Cool Off To Nod Off

Our internal clocks spur a drop in body temperature starting about an hour before we typically go to sleep. Temps continue to fall into the night. A warm bath or shower one to two hours before going to bed facilitates the body’s natural flow into sleep by lowering body temperature. Immersing yourself in warm water shunts blood flow to our palms and the soles of our feet and helps heat dissipate from the body. 

Taking a warm bath or shower too early before bedtime may make you feel sleepy, but won’t actually help you fall asleep, Haghayegh said. Likewise, a warm bath or shower too close to bedtime may be too late to be effective. It might even interferre with the body’s ability to fall and stay asleep.

For a restful night, the researchers recommend a warm bath or shower – 104 degrees Fahrenheit to 107 degrees F – for as little as 10 minutes, one to two hours before bedtime.

When he can, Haghaeyegh follows his own advice. “It helps,” he said. 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health

This Rocky Super-Earth Had Its Atmosphere Vaporized

By Korey Haynes | August 19, 2019 10:31 am
illustration of an exoplanet around a star
Astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope discovered that exoplanet LHS 3844b probably lacks any atmosphere at all. (Credit: ESO/NASA)

Rocky planets just a little larger than Earth are some of the best targets for finding life in our local cosmic neighborhood. They’re abundant. But it’s not just the size that has to match Earth. Our planet wouldn’t be the life-sheltering place it is without its atmosphere, which keeps us warm enough not to freeze, but not so hot that we smother or boil away all our oceans. Our distance from the sun plays a prime roll in keeping a Goldilocks-perfect atmosphere — we’re not too far and not too close.

But finding worlds like ours out in the galaxy is difficult business. Astronomers have a hard time telling what an atmosphere looks like from light-years away. But scientists are trying hard to crack that particular nut. One of the latest attempts involves a planet called LHS 3844b, a rocky world 1.3 times the width of Earth that orbits a dim star every 11 days. Astronomers stared at it with the Spitzer Space Telescope for 100 hours, but found that the planet probably lacks any atmosphere at all, let alone one friendly to life. Instead, it’s simply a hot, bare rock orbiting its star. Astronomers led by Laura Kreidberg from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics reported their findings August 19 in the journal Nature.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets

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