OSIRIS-REx Caught its Asteroid Ejecting Strange, High-Speed Bursts of Particles

By Korey Haynes | March 19, 2019 4:30 pm
asteroid with small particles around it

One of asteroid Bennu’s biggest surprises comes from the bursts of particles it sometimes sends flying into space, where OSIRIS-REx captures sight of them. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin)

Right now, there are two missions exploring asteroids in our solar system. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is revealing surprises at its asteroid home called Bennu. It arrived there not long after Japan’s similar Hayabusa2 sample-return mission reached asteroid Ryugu.

So far, NASA’s mission is finding similarities with Ryugu, as well as big differences, scientists announced on Tuesday. Both asteroids are more rugged and rocky than anticipated. But Bennu also revealed surprising flurries of material ejected from its surface on some dozen occasions since OSIRIS-REx’s arrival. Scientists are still investigating how and why the asteroid is flinging small rocks into space. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system

Hayabusa2 Results Hint Asteroid Ryugu Was Broken Off Larger Space Rock

By Korey Haynes | March 19, 2019 3:22 pm
illustration of spacecraft above a crater

The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 is hard at work collecting data on asteroid Ryugu. (Credit: JAXA)

The Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 spacecraft swooped down and collected a first sample from the asteroid Ryugu on February 22. And now JAXA is ready to make an even more dramatic sample collection in April when it uses explosives to shoot an impactor at the space rock to create an artificial crater. Hayabusa2 won’t leave Ryugu until the end of 2019, and it’s expected to make it home to Earth with the samples at the end of 2020.

In the meantime, scientists are learning plenty from Hayabusa2’s other explorations, which have already started to yield results, mission scientists announced Tuesday. That includes new evidence that Ryugu’s was once part of a much larger asteroid.

Are You My Mother?

Hayabusa2’s cameras and instruments are constantly sending back information about Ryugu. Scientists knew before arriving that it was a stony, carbonaceous chondrite asteroid. But orbiting closely around Ryugu has taught them much more.

For one, Ryugu is much more rugged than scientists expected. And that pushed back their first touchdown maneuver. Instead of collecting their first sample in October, they stayed in orbit, trying to find a spot to touch down that was free of large boulders that might harm the spacecraft. While scientists eventually found a spot, the landing area was much smaller than they’d originally hoped, meaning they had to be much more careful about touchdown. The February collection went smoothly, and the team is now confident in their ability to navigate around Ryugu.

Scientists also found that Ryugu is darker than most asteroids of its type, reflecting less than 2% of the sunlight it receives. When they compare it to meteorite samples in labs, scientists found it looks like materials that have undergone “thermal metamorphosis” – in other words, they’ve been changed by exposure to heat.

Seconding this theory, Ryugu also shows signs of being covered in hydroxyl, a material made up of hydrogen and oxygen. Seeing this is a good indication that Ryugu once contained water that has since been baked away, leaving behind only some of the components.

Seiji Sugita, spoke at a press conference today at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, providing updates to the Hayabusa2 mission. He said all the evidence points to Ryugu being a fragment of a larger, older asteroid parent body. The complex history of its surface doesn’t make sense for a body as small as it is. And the size itself points toward its origin – Sugita says it could not have survived 4.6 billion years of solar system history on its own.

In short, Ryugu’s parent would have had water on it, which was later baked away. Then, some impact broke off fragments and sent Ryugu off on its own, sometime in the last few hundred million years. He says that when the samples Hayabusa2 collected are returned to Earth, they may be able to date that collision and point to a specific parent asteroid body.

More of his results are published today in the journal Science.

Hayabusa2’s next big maneuver will be delivering an impactor to Ryugu’s surface on April 5. Instead of the small bullet it used to collect its first sample, this will be a 4.5-pound impactor that the spacecraft will send crashing into Ryugu’s surface to stir up material from well underneath the surface. The spacecraft will descend about two weeks later into what researchers expect will be a 30-foot crater in order to investigate and collect more samples that will tell researchers about the asteroid’s still-mysterious interior.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
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Ancient Human Ancestors May Have Grown Big Brains Scavenging Bone Marrow

By Thomas Garlinghouse | March 19, 2019 3:00 pm

Australopithecus africanus skull as displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. (Credit:  Ryan Somma via Flickr)

Australopithecus africanus skull as displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. (Credit:
Ryan Somma via Flickr)

(Inside Science) — In the late 1970s, anthropologists popularized the now familiar scenario that our very early ancestors were scavengers rather than hunters. These ancestors, the australopithecines, lived on the African savanna between 2 million and 4 million years ago. Most researchers think that instead of actively hunting large game, the australopithecines likely consumed whatever edible portions were left on the carcasses of large animals killed by carnivores such as wild dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions.

In a new and still speculative hypothesis, researchers suggest that, yes, early human ancestors — called hominins — were indeed scavengers. But they also believe that our ancestors were highly selective.

In a paper recently published in the journal Current Anthropology, Jessica Thompson, an anthropologist at Yale University, and her colleagues suggest that hominins were primarily after bone marrow — that gloppy, spongy, calorie-rich substance inside bones — rather than skeletal muscle tissue, or “meat.”
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

A Quasar-Powered Storm Pours From the Teacup Galaxy

By Amber Jorgenson | March 19, 2019 1:53 pm

This composite image shows J1430+1339, known as the Teacup galaxy. Optical light (red and green) was taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and X-ray data (blue) was collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Cambridge/G. Lansbury et al; Optical: NASA/STScI/W. Keel et al.)

Your nighttime cup of chamomile might help you go to sleep, but this turbulent teacup is far from soothing.

Sitting inside a galaxy known as the “Teacup,” nicknamed after its distinct silhouette, lies a storm that’s causing quite the stir. Powered by a supermassive black hole, astronomers thought the commotion inside this distant galaxy was rapidly dying down, but recent data published in the Astrophysical Journal says otherwise.

The uproar is happening within the bright mass at the center of the Teacup, which is roughly 1.1 billion light years from Earth. The composite image above, displaying both optical (red and green) and X-ray (blue) light, shows a supermassive black hole outshining the rest of its host galaxy.

While the black hole itself can’t be seen, it’s surrounded by incredibly strong gravitational and magnetic fields. These allow the powerful black hole to suck up surrounding stars, planets, dust and gas. Ripping all of this material to shreds produces extreme amounts of radiation — more than all of the stars in the galaxy. Known as quasars, these blazing regions are thought to be the brightest objects in the universe.

Aside from its intense glow, astronomers believe that the Teacup’s signature handle was actually created by the quasar. The staggering amount of radiation that surrounds the black hole can cause high-speed galactic winds, known as jets, to shoot out from either side of the quasar. These powerful jets likely blew a ring of galactic material into space and created the empty “bubble” that sits inside of the handle.

Grasping the Handle

In a previous study, conducted after the Teacup was discovered in 2007, researchers used optical telescopes to observe its features. They found that its handle was made up of ionized atoms, meaning that high amounts of radiation had, at some point, passed through and stripped them of their electrons.

But comparing the amount of radiation needed to ionize the atoms to the amount gusting from the quasar showed that there wasn’t nearly enough. This implied that the quasar’s wind, once housing enough radiation to ionize atoms, had slowed down drastically. Their stats suggested that the quasar’s radiation production had fallen by a factor of at least 50, and possibly up to 600, in the last 100,000 years. This steep decline painted a dark picture for the ever-weakening quasar.

But new data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton mission are breathing light into the quasar’s future. Together, their X-ray observations show that the Teacup is highly obscured by gas, which hindered the optical telescope’s ability to detect all the radiation emitting from the quasar. The new study picked up much more radiation, and suggests that it’s only decreased by a factor of 25, maximum, over the last 100,000 years.

The discovery not only pours new life into the Teacup’s quasar, but shows how astronomers can use unique galactic features, like the Teacup’s handle, to learn about the mysterious black holes that lie within them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

NASA’s First Mars Rover Actually Explored An Ancient Sea

By Alison Klesman | March 19, 2019 1:00 pm
Mars NASA sojourner rover

The Pathfinder mission landed in Mars’ Ares Vallis, where the Sojourner rover catalogued rocks that may have been eroded by floodwaters. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Mars may be a dry, cold planet today, but it was once a warmer, wetter one. NASA’s Opportunity rover was the first rover to find solid evidence of water on Mars — but years before Opportunity’s discoveries, NASA’s first Martian rover mission spent its time exploring an ancient spillway that once connected Mars’ northern ocean to an inland sea.

Mars Pathfinder landed 22 years ago, on July 4, 1997. The mission’s 23-pound (10.6 kilograms) rover, Sojourner, was the first rover to explore the surface of Mars, wheeling through Ares Vallis for 83 days. The mission investigated whether massive channels in the landscape, spotted by Mariner 9, were caused by floodwaters, as indicated from orbit. But the rover’s findings were inconclusive, leaving open the possibility that the shallow channels had been carved by lava instead of water. But that possibility is no longer viable, according to a paper published February 25 in Nature Scientific Reports, which states that the features Sojourner mapped are, in fact, the result of cataclysmic flooding on the Red Planet.

Formed by Martian Water

“Our paper shows a basin, with roughly the surface area of California, that separates most of the gigantic Martian channels from the Pathfinder landing site. Debris or lava flows would have filled the basin before reaching the Pathfinder landing site. The very existence of the basin requires cataclysmic floods as the channels’ primary formational mechanism,” said lead author Alexis Rodriguez of the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) in a press release.

The basin, according to Rodriguez, contains sedimentary rock consistent with deposits that would have been left by groundwater flooding, which formed an inland sea. “This sea is approximately 155 miles (250 kilometers) upstream from the Pathfinder landing site, an observation that reframes its paleo-geographic setting as part of a marine spillway, which formed a land barrier separating the inland sea and a northern ocean,” she said. “Our simulation shows that the presence of the sea would have attenuated cataclysmic floods, leading to shallow spillovers that reached the Pathfinder landing site and produced the bedforms detected by the spacecraft.”

According to the researchers, the ancient inland sea resembles the disappearing Aral Sea on Earth. “Our numerical simulations indicate that the [Martian] sea rapidly became ice-covered and disappeared within a few thousand years due to its rapid evaporation and sublimation. During this time, however, it remained liquid below its ice cover,” said co-author Bryan Travis, also of PSI.

Though its presence was brief, Rodriguez said the sea could have hosted life — and the deposits it left at the Pathfinder landing site could contain evidence of that life. That evidence could even be within reach, she added, as its location is “easily accessible by future missions.”

Are you ready to take a closer look at Mars? Check out our free downloadable eBook: Mars: Exploring the Red Planet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

SNAPSHOT: Hip Hop Makes Cheese Taste Better, Finds a Strange Swiss Experiment

By Alison Mackey | March 19, 2019 12:15 pm
sound and cheese hip hop

(Credit: Stefan Wermuth/University of the Arts Bern)

“Cheese in Surround Sound” is the name of a fun culinary arts experiment that wrapped up last week in Switzerland.

Wheels of cheese have been bathing in sound as they ripen over the past seven months to answer a strange question: “Do sound waves affect the metabolic processes in ripening cheese to the extent that a sono-chemical impact on taste and flavor can be detected.”
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First Confirmed Piece of a Denisovan Skull Discovered

By Nicola Jones | March 19, 2019 11:15 am
(Credit: IAET SB RAS/Sergei Zelensky)

(Credit: IAET SB RAS/Sergei Zelensky)

A chunk of a Denisovan skull has been identified for the first time — a dramatic contribution to the handful of known samples from one of the most obscure branches of the hominin family tree. Paleoanthropologist Bence Viola from the University of Toronto will discuss the as-yet-unpublished discovery at the upcoming meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Cleveland, Ohio, at the end of March.

Very little is known about the Denisovans, an extinct branch of hominins that was a sister group to Neanderthals. Only four individual Denisovans had been identified previously, all from one cave in Siberia. The first Denisovan was described in 2010 from the fragment of a pinky finger bone, and three more were identified from teeth. This skull piece, excavated about three years ago in that same Siberian cave, represents a fifth individual.

“It’s very nice that we finally have fragments like this,” says Viola. “It’s not a full skull, but it’s a piece of a skull. It gives us more. Compared to the finger and the teeth, it’s nice to have.” But, he adds, it’s hardly a full skeleton. “We’re always greedy,” he laughs. “We want more.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Rocket May Launch Its First Commercial Flight Soon

By Korey Haynes | March 18, 2019 5:31 pm
Falcon Heavy on launch page

The Falcon Heavy on the launchpad. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket may fly again as soon as April 7, if the reporting of CNBC proves accurate. The news outlet cites anonymous sources in its story, and SpaceX so far hasn’t confirmed the launch. The rocket’s first and last flight was in February 2018, when it successfully launched Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster into space.

Falcon Heavy’s next mission would fly a communications satellite into space for Arabsat, a Saudi Arabian company. It would launch from SpaceX’s usual site at Kennedy Space Center’s Launchpad 39A in Florida. Read More

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Turkish Meteorite Turns Out to be a Free Sample from Asteroid Vesta

By Korey Haynes | March 18, 2019 4:25 pm
cratered surface

Asteroid Vesta is covered in craters. One of them, Antonia, is the origin of meteorites that fell to Earth in 2015. (Credit: NASA)

Twenty-two million years ago, something crashed into the asteroid Vesta, carving out a large crater and throwing the debris high into space. In 2015, a three-foot meteor streaked through the sky above Turkey before fragmenting into pieces and falling near a village called Sariçiçek. Scientists who studied a whopping 343 pieces of the recovered meteorite now think it originated in that long-ago collision on Vesta. Read More

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With the Mars InSight Lander Stuck, NASA Tries to Hack a Fix With Earthly Clones

By Korey Haynes | March 15, 2019 5:43 pm
nasa insight lander

Engineers prep NASA’s Mars InSight lander for launch to the Red Planet. (Credit: NASA)

Last month, NASA’s Mars InSight lander started digging into the Red Planet. Its HP3 (Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package) instrument was designed to burrow and measure Mars from underground, uncovering new geological evidence about how heat flows through the Martian soil. The part of this instrument that actually burrows into the ground is known as the mole. It was meant to penetrate up to 16 feet deep. But it stopped just hours after it starting digging. The mole only made it about a foot deep.

Since then, mission scientists have been hard at work trying to figure out how to get it going again. Their current best guess, according to Tilman Spohn, the HP3 instrument’s principal investigator, is that the mole hit a rock or a gravel layer. But he admits that’s partly speculation. It’s also possible the drill is snagged on its own support structure somehow. The team needs to investigate all the possibilities before acting.

Testing at Home and on Mars

HP3 instrument in a lab

InSight’s HP3 instrument has copies here on Earth that scientists can use to test while working on solutions. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DLR)

To find out, the NASA team has turned to a suite of diagnostic tools, like InSight’s camera and other sensors. But they’re also trying to recreate the problem with engineering models here on Earth. InSight has a twin, currently located in Berlin, and many more copies of its various instruments, including the mole. And engineers have been practicing with these clone landers ever since the failure, trying to recreate the problem they’re seeing on Mars, and then devise a way to get the earthbound moles digging again. Only then will they try those fixes them on the real InSight.

Spohn points out that the whole process is slow, and it may be another month before the team is ready to try any fix-it attempts on Mars. Even once they devise a solution, it may require writing new software, testing it on the models on Earth, and then sending it to the real InSight before any action happens.

So, for the moment, the teams at both the German Aerospace Center, which provided the HP3 instrument, and at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the larger InSight mission, are working together to find both the cause and possible solutions to InSight’s digging problem.

Possible Conclusions

There are scenarios that might stop the mission where it stands. “If it’s a 1 meter (3 foot) block of rock at the spot,” Spohn says, “There’s no way we can handle that situation. The hope is that what we’re hammering against is a small rock, say half the size of the mole’s length. We could push that aside by continuing to hammer.” Spohn calls this the “brute force” approach.

One way scientists are considering to help the mole hammer down would be to press down on the mole or its support structure, probably with InSight’s arm, to lend it more force and limit any recoil. Right now, part of the problem might be that the mole is bouncing off the rock instead of driving through, so adding more pressure could help it dig down. But pushing down is not what the arm was designed for, which is why testing with the models on Earth would be so important before they try them on the $800 million craft on Mars.

If they keep hammering and bend or break part of the lander, there are no fixes on the Red Planet. “If you make a mistake, it’s gone,” Spohn says. But he also points out that if the mole starts to dig freely again, it could reach its target depth within about four hours, and it has plenty of energy left to do so. InSight itself runs on solar power, and was designed for two Earth years of duty. InSight only arrived on Mars in November, so it has lots of time left.

If the worst case arises and the mole can’t continue, Spohn admits, “We would lose a significant amount of science.” The mole needs to descend at least 10 feet to accomplish its goal of measuring heat flow from Mars’ interior. “But there are still things to be done,” he says. InSight’s other instruments are working as planned, and they would still get information from the foot of Mars dirt that InSight has been able to dig through. “It would still be stuff that hasn’t been done before,” Spohn says. “Not as bold as originally planned, but still good science.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

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