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Category Archives: 08. Pluto, comets, and space debris

Anthony Lydgate, editor of Elements, newyorker.com’s science-and-tech blog provides details of the September 8 launch and goals of the OSIRIS-REx mission, to collect and return about 60 g of material from the asteroid Bennu. Read the full New Yorker article here.

(Note: newyorker.com restricts how many articles non-subscribers may read each month.)

av_orex_l2

Credit: United Launch Alliance

Links: OSIRIS-REx mission homepage.

From a press release of the European Space Agency (ESA), September 5, 2016:

Less than a month before the end of the mission, the Rosetta orbiter’s high-resolution camera has revealed the Philae lander wedged into a dark crack on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

philae_found

Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team

The images were taken on September 2 by the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera as the orbiter came within 2.7 km of the surface and show the main body of the lander, along with two of its three legs.

The images also provide proof of Philae’s orientation, making it clear why establishing communications was so difficult following its landing on November 12, 2014.

The discovery comes less than a month before Rosetta descends to the comet’s surface. On September 30, the orbiter will be sent on a final one-way mission to investigate the comet from close up, including the open pits in the Ma’at region, where it is hoped that critical observations will help to reveal secrets of the body’s interior structure.

Link: full Rosetta mission press release, including further images and explanations.

Adapted from an article in the LA Times (July 15, 2016):

A layer of soot deposited after the K/T extinction event may explain why dinosaurs but not everything else died. (See The Cosmos, A Closer Look 8.5, p. 220.)

Researchers from Japan argue that the 6-mile-wide asteroid slammed into an oil field in the present day Yucatán Peninsula and triggered an inferno that launched a massive cloud of smoke into the sky. The resulting layer of soot that enveloped the globe would have been just the right thing to kill the dinosaurs and most other land-dwelling creatures.

Previous theories have postulated that the asteroid sparked the mass extinction by releasing high levels of sulfuric acid particles in the atmosphere. The particles would have caused complete darkness, near-freezing temperatures and acid rain. However, sulfuric acid particles don’t hang around for very long — and if they did, the results would have been catastrophic for many species besides dinosaurs. Instead, soot from the immense fire caused by the Chicxulub impact was a prime candidate.

The scientists collected soot samples from the thin band of rock that marks the timing of the extinction of dinosaurs and found the same composition from locations around the world. They hypothesize that soot was slowly deposited on land in the five years following the massive collision. The powdery substance is primarily made of black carbon that results from incineration of organic matter.

The tiny particles are about a million times more light-absorbing than carbon dioxide. They would have blocked about 85% of sunlight from reaching Earth and cut rainfall by nearly 80%, creating near-drought conditions, as well as causing temperatures to plummet. In this post-asteroid wasteland, plants began to die off, cutting off the food supply to creatures higher up the food chain — such as the dinosaurs — while allowing smaller mammals, birds and aquatic creatures to survive.

Link: the LA Times article

Mike Brown, the Caltech professor who found a Pluto-sized object past Pluto that led to both being reclassified by the International Astronomical Union as “dwarf planets” (a promotion for Pluto to being the best and biggest of its category, not the demotion you often read about, see The Cosmos, Section 8.1c, pp. 201–202), and Caltech colleague Konstantin Batygin, have deduced the presence of a “superEarth” perhaps 10 times Earth’s size and way far out in the Solar System.

21PLANET-master1050-v2

Credit: Caltech AMT

They deduce its presence by its effect on several of the most distant Kuiper-belt objects that Brown and others have found in recent years. So even if Brown’s work led to Pluto no longer being the ninth planet, this could be the real ninth planet. “This may even be real,” they each said to me [The Cosmos author, JMP].

Here are links to some of the press coverage: The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time Magazine.

The scientific paper was published in the Astronomical Journal: “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System,” Konstantin Batygin & Michael E. Brown, 2016 February, Astronomical Journal.

From an article posted on the New Horizons website on November 5, 2015.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has successfully completed record-setting maneuvers that have set it on course to reach 2014 MU69, which orbits in the Kuiper Belt, in January 2019.

The four propulsive maneuvers were the most distant trajectory corrections ever performed by any spacecraft. The fourth and final maneuver started at approximately 1:15 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Nov. 4, and lasted just under 20 minutes. Data indicating that this final maneuver had been successful reached spacecraft operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, just before 7 p.m. EST on Wednesday.

Credit: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Credit: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The maneuvers didn’t speed or slow the spacecraft, rather they “pushed” New Horizons sideways, giving it a 57 meter per second (128 mile per hour) nudge toward the KBO. 2014 MU69 is around 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, and the aim is for New Horizons to come within even closer range of MU69 than it did to Pluto on July 14, 2015.

The New Horizons team will submit a formal proposal to NASA for the extended mission to 2014 MU69 in early 2016. Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington said that “this is another milestone in the life of an already successful mission that’s returning exciting new data every day. These course adjustments preserve the option of studying an even more distant object in the future, as New Horizons continues its remarkable journey.”

At the time of November 5th’s maneuver, New Horizons was approximately 84 million miles beyond Pluto and nearly 3.2 billion miles from Earth. The spacecraft is now 895 million miles from MU69, speeding at more than 32,000 miles per hour toward deeper space.

For more information on Kuiper Belt objects, see Chapter 8.2 (p. 202-204) of The Cosmos.

For the original article on the New Horizons website, click here.

From a press release originally published on the John Hopkins Laboratory website on October 15, 2015.

Following the first exploration of the Pluto system in history, NASA’s New Horizons team have published their first research paper detailing their findings of the distant planet.

The paper, entitled “The Pluto System: Initial Results from its Exploration by New Horizons,” describes an unusual heart-shaped region, intriguing moons, and a surprising degree of diversity and complexity in the Pluto System.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Team members believe that some of the processes on Pluto have occurred relatively recently, including those which involve the water-ice rich crust that they have discovered. This raises fundamental questions about how small planets remain active billions of years after their formation.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made it to within 7,750 miles of Pluto’s surface at its point of closest approach, gathering so much data that scientists won’t see the extent of it for another year.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, describes the mission as only the beginning. “The New Horizons mission completes our initial reconnaissance of the solar system, giving humanity our first look at this fascinating world and its system of moons. New Horizons is not only writing the textbook on the Pluto system, it’s serving to inspire current and future generations to keep exploring — to keep searching for what’s beyond the next hill.”

For more information on what we know so far about the dwarf planet right on the fringes of our Solar system, see Chapter 8.1 of The Cosmos.

Link: for the original press release, click here.

From an article published August 28, 2015 on The New York Times website:

Credit: Alex Parker, via NASA

Credit: Alex Parker, via NASA

Fresh from its Pluto flyby in July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has a new mission. The next destination for the probe is to be a much smaller ice ball in the outer Solar System, almost a billion miles beyond Pluto.

If NASA approves the extension to the mission, the spacecraft will visit the icy body known as 2014 MU69 in 2019 to capture photographs and data, in a similar way as for the examination of Pluto. While the vistas of this object would not be as impressive as those of Pluto, it would provide a close-up look at another piece of debris beyond Neptune, part of what is known as the Kuiper belt (see Section 8.2, pp. 202-204 in The Cosmos).

NASA has already examined smaller icy objects like comets, some of which originate in the Kuiper belt, but the flyby of 2014 MU69 will “connect the dots”, says S. Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator. As an intermediate-size Kuiper belt object, the gap in our knowledge between smaller icy objects and the far greater Pluto will aim to be filled.

The New Horizons spacecraft is to adjust course through a series of four thruster firings in late October and early November. New Horizons would also make more distant measurements of 20 other Kuiper belt objects en route to 2014 MU69.

For more information on spacecrafts flying by comets, see Section 8.3f, pp. 210-214 in The Cosmos.

Link: Full article here

From an article published on September 30, 2015 at www.space.com:

www.space.com

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Colorful new maps of Ceres, charted by NASA’s Dawn space probe, have been unveiled at the European Planetary Science Conference in France. The maps highlight the dwarf planet’s topography and composition, as well as a pyramid-shaped mountain and the Occator crater, where many mysterious bright spots can be found.

Dawn scientists are also discussing three bursts of energetic electrons that have them puzzled. As Dawn principal investigator Chris Russell put it, “Ceres continues to amaze”.

To learn more about the outer Solar System, see Chapter 8 of The Cosmos.

Link to the full article on www.space.com

From APOD, June 3, 2105:

A new view of Saturn’s moon Hyperion was released by the Cassini team during a recent fly-by.

hyperion02_cassini_1024

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The images shows numerous unusually-shaped craters with dark material at the bottom. At around 250 km across, its gravitational pull on Cassini reveals that it is mostly empty space. The unusual crater shapes are thought to arise from surface impacts, which compress and eject surface material, unlike the regular circular shock-wave craters seen on other moons and planets.

Link: APOD, June 3, 2015.

From a JPL news release, February 10, 2015:

Astronomers tinkering with ice and organics in the lab may have discovered why comets are encased in a hard, outer crust. Using an icebox-like instrument nicknamed Himalaya, the researchers show that fluffy ice on the surface of a comet would crystalize and harden as the comet heads toward the Sun and warms up. As the water-ice crystals form, becoming denser and more ordered, other molecules containing carbon would be expelled to the comet’s surface. The result is a crunchy comet crust sprinkled with organic dust, like a deep-fried ice cream: the crust is made of crystalline ice, while the interior is colder and more porous. The organics are like a final layer of chocolate on top.

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Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

The composition of comets is important to understanding how they might have delivered water and organics to our nascent, bubbling-hot Earth. New results from the Rosetta mission show that asteroids may have been the primary carriers of life’s ingredients; however, the debate is ongoing and comets may have played a role.

Links: JPL news article; Rosetta home.