Category: asteroid

Why Bennu? 10 Reasons

After traveling for two years and billions of kilometers from Earth, the OSIRIS-REx probe is only a few months away from its destination: the intriguing asteroid Bennu. When it arrives in December, OSIRIS-REx will embark on a nearly two-year investigation of this clump of rock, mapping its terrain and finding a safe and fruitful site from which to collect a sample.

The spacecraft will briefly touch Bennu’s surface around July 2020 to collect at least 60 grams (equal to about 30 sugar packets) of dirt and rocks. It might collect as much as 2,000 grams, which would be the largest sample by far gathered from a space object since the Apollo Moon landings. The spacecraft will then pack the sample into a capsule and travel back to Earth, dropping the capsule into Utah’s west desert in 2023, where scientists will be waiting to collect it.

This years-long quest for knowledge thrusts Bennu into the center of one of the most ambitious space missions ever attempted. But the humble rock is but one of about 780,000 known asteroids in our solar system. So why did scientists pick Bennu for this momentous investigation? Here are 10 reasons:

1. It’s close to Earth

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Unlike most other asteroids that circle the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Bennu’s orbit is close in proximity to Earth’s, even crossing it. The asteroid makes its closest approach to Earth every 6 years. It also circles the Sun nearly in the same plane as Earth, which made it somewhat easier to achieve the high-energy task of launching the spacecraft out of Earth’s plane and into Bennu’s. Still, the launch required considerable power, so OSIRIS-REx used Earth’s gravity to boost itself into Bennu’s orbital plane when it passed our planet in September 2017.

2. It’s the right size

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Asteroids spin on their axes just like Earth does. Small ones, with diameters of 200 meters or less, often spin very fast, up to a few revolutions per minute. This rapid spinning makes it difficult for a spacecraft to match an asteroid’s velocity in order to touch down and collect samples. Even worse, the quick spinning has flung loose rocks and soil, material known as “regolith” — the stuff OSIRIS-REx is looking to collect — off the surfaces of small asteroids. Bennu’s size, in contrast, makes it approachable and rich in regolith. It has a diameter of 492 meters, which is a bit larger than the height of the Empire State Building in New York City, and rotating once every 4.3 hours.

3. It’s really old

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Bennu is a leftover fragment from the tumultuous formation of the solar system. Some of the mineral fragments inside Bennu could be older than the solar system. These microscopic grains of dust could be the same ones that spewed from dying stars and eventually coalesced to make the Sun and its planets nearly 4.6 billion years ago. But pieces of asteroids, called meteorites, have been falling to Earth’s surface since the planet formed. So why don’t scientists just study those old space rocks? Because astronomers can’t tell (with very few exceptions) what kind of objects these meteorites came from, which is important context. Furthermore, these stones, that survive the violent, fiery decent to our planet’s surface, get contaminated when they land in the dirt, sand, or snow. Some even get hammered by the elements, like rain and snow, for hundreds or thousands of years. Such events change the chemistry of meteorites, obscuring their ancient records.

4. It’s well preserved

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Bennu, on the other hand, is a time capsule from the early solar system, having been preserved in the vacuum of space. Although scientists think it broke off a larger asteroid in the asteroid belt in a catastrophic collision between about 1 and 2 billion years ago, and hurtled through space until it got locked into an orbit near Earth’s, they don’t expect that these events significantly altered it.

5. It might contain clues to the origin of life

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Analyzing a sample from Bennu will help planetary scientists better understand the role asteroids may have played in delivering life-forming compounds to Earth. We know from having studied Bennu through Earth- and space-based telescopes that it is a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang. Bennu is likely rich in organic molecules, which are made of chains of carbon bonded with atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements in a chemical recipe that makes all known living things. Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid.

6. It contains valuable materials

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Besides teaching us about our cosmic past, exploring Bennu close-up will help humans plan for the future. Asteroids are rich in natural resources, such as iron and aluminum, and precious metals, such as platinum. For this reason, some companies, and even countries, are building technologies that will one day allow us to extract those materials. More importantly, asteroids like Bennu are key to future, deep-space travel. If humans can learn how to extract the abundant hydrogen and oxygen from the water locked up in an asteroid’s minerals, they could make rocket fuel. Thus, asteroids could one day serve as fuel stations for robotic or human missions to Mars and beyond. Learning how to maneuver around an object like Bennu, and about its chemical and physical properties, will help future prospectors.

7. It will help us better understand other asteroids

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Astronomers have studied Bennu from Earth since it was discovered in 1999. As a result, they think they know a lot about the asteroid’s physical and chemical properties. Their knowledge is based not only on looking at the asteroid, but also studying meteorites found on Earth, and filling in gaps in observable knowledge with predictions derived from theoretical models. Thanks to the detailed information that will be gleaned from OSIRIS-REx, scientists now will be able to check whether their predictions about Bennu are correct. This work will help verify or refine telescopic observations and models that attempt to reveal the nature of other asteroids in our solar system.

8. It will help us better understand a quirky solar force …

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Astronomers have calculated that Bennu’s orbit has drifted about 280 meters (0.18 miles) per year toward the Sun since it was discovered. This could be because of a phenomenon called the Yarkovsky effect, a process whereby sunlight warms one side of a small, dark asteroid and then radiates as heat off the asteroid as it rotates. The heat energy thrusts an asteroid either away from the Sun, if it has a prograde spin like Earth, which means it spins in the same direction as its orbit, or toward the Sun in the case of Bennu, which spins in the opposite direction of its orbit. OSIRIS-REx will measure the Yarkovsky effect from close-up to help scientists predict the movement of Bennu and other asteroids. Already, measurements of how this force impacted Bennu over time have revealed that it likely pushed it to our corner of the solar system from the asteroid belt.

9. … and to keep asteroids at bay

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One reason scientists are eager to predict the directions asteroids are drifting is to know when they’re coming too-close-for-comfort to Earth. By taking the Yarkovsky effect into account, they’ve estimated that Bennu could pass closer to Earth than the Moon is in 2135, and possibly even closer between 2175 and 2195. Although Bennu is unlikely to hit Earth at that time, our descendants can use the data from OSIRIS-REx to determine how best to deflect any threatening asteroids that are found, perhaps even by using the Yarkovsky effect to their advantage.

10. It’s a gift that will keep on giving

Samples of Bennu will return to Earth on September 24, 2023. OSIRIS-REx scientists will study a quarter of the regolith. The rest will be made available to scientists around the globe, and also saved for those not yet born, using techniques not yet invented, to answer questions not yet asked.

Read the web version of this week’s “Solar System: 10 Things to Know” article HERE.

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10 Things: Mysterious ‘Oumuamua

The interstellar object ‘Oumuamua perplexed scientists in October 2017
as it whipped past Earth at an unusually high speed. This mysterious
visitor is the first object ever seen in our solar system that is known
to have originated elsewhere. 

Here are five things we know and five things we don’t know about the first
confirmed interstellar object to pass through our solar system.

1. We know it’s not from around here.

 The object known as 1I/2017 U1 (and nicknamed ‘Oumuamua) was traveling too fast
(196,000 mph, that’s 54 miles per second or 87.3 kilometers per second)
to have originated in our solar system. Comets and asteroids from
within our solar system move at a slower speed, typically an average of 12 miles per second (19 kilometers per second) . In non-technical terms, ‘Oumuamua is an “interstellar vagabond.”

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Artist impression of the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

2. We’re not sure where it came from.

‘Oumuamua entered our solar system from the rough direction of the constellation Lyra, but it’s impossible to tell where it originally came from.
Thousands of years ago, when ‘Oumuamua started to wander from its
parent planetary system, the stars were in a different position so it’s
impossible to pinpoint its point of origin. It could have been wandering
the galaxy for billions of years.

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3. We know it’s out of here.

‘Oumuamua is headed back out of our solar system and won’t be coming back.
It’s rapidly headed in the direction of the constellation Pegasus and
will cross the orbit of Neptune in about four years and cover one light
year’s distance in about 11,000 years.

4. We don’t really know what it looks like.

We’ve only seen it as a speck of light through a telescope (it is far
away and less than half a mile in length), but its unique rotation
leads us to believe that it’s elongated like a cigar, about 10 times
longer than it is wide. We can’t see it anymore. Artist’s concepts are
the best guesses at what it might look like.

5. We know it got a little speed boost.

A rapid response observing campaign allowed us to watch as ‘Oumuamua got an unexpected boost in speed. The acceleration slightly changed its course from earlier predictions.

“This additional subtle force on ′Oumuamua likely is caused by jets
of gaseous material expelled from its surface,” said Davide Farnocchia
of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This same kind of outgassing affects the motion of many comets in our solar system.”

6. We know it’s tumbling.

Unusual variations in the comet’s brightness suggest it is rotating on more than one axis.

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This illustration shows ‘Oumuamua racing toward the outskirts of our
solar system. As the complex rotation of the object makes it difficult
to determine the exact shape, there are many models of what it could
look like. Credits: NASA/ESA/STScI

7. We don’t know what it’s made of.

Comets in our solar system kick off lots of dust and gas when they get close to the Sun, but ‘Oumuamua did not, which led observers to consider defining it as an asteroid.

Karen Meech, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of
Astronomy, said small dust grains, present on the surface of most
comets, may have eroded away during ′Oumuamua’s long journey through
interstellar space. “The more we study ′Oumuamua, the more exciting it
gets.” she said. It could be giving off gases that are harder to see
than dust, but it’s impossible to know at this point.

8. We knew to expect it.

Just not when. The discovery of an interstellar object has been anticipated for decades.
The space between the stars probably has billions and billions of
asteroids and comets roaming around independently. Scientists understood
that inevitably, some of these small bodies would enter our own solar
system. This interstellar visit by ‘Oumuamua reinforces our models of
how planetary systems form.

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9. We don’t know what it’s doing now.

After January 2018, ’Oumuamua was no longer visible to telescopes,
even in space. But scientists continue to analyze the data gathered
during the international observing campaign and crack open more
mysteries about this unique interstellar visitor.

10. We know there’s a good chance we’ll see another one…eventually.

Because ′Oumuamua is the first interstellar object ever observed in
our solar system, researchers caution that it’s difficult to draw
general conclusions about this newly-discovered class of celestial
bodies. Observations point to the possibility that other star systems regularly eject small comet-like objects
and there should be more of them drifting among the stars. Future
ground- and space-based surveys could detect more of these interstellar
vagabonds, providing a larger sample for scientists to analyze. Adds,
Karen Meech, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of
Astronomy: “I can hardly wait for the next interstellar object!“

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Exploring an Asteroid Without Leaving Earth

This 45 day mission – which began May 5, 2018 and ends today, June 18 – will help our researchers learn how isolation and close quarters affect individual and group behavior. This study at our Johnson Space Center prepares us for long duration space missions, like a trip to an asteroid or even to Mars.

The Human Research Exploration Analog (HERA) that the crew members will be living in is one compact, science-making house. But unlike in a normal house, these inhabitants won’t go outside for 45 days. Their communication with the rest of planet Earth will also be very limited, and they won’t have any access to internet. So no checking social media, kids!

The only people they will talk with regularly are mission control and each other.

The HERA XVII crew is made up of 2 men and 2 women, selected from the Johnson Space Center Test Subject Screening (TSS) pool. The crew member selection process is based on a number of criteria, including criteria similar to what is used for astronaut selection. The four would-be astronauts are:

  • William Daniels
  • Chiemi Heil
  • Eleanor Morgan
  • Michael Pecaut

What will they be doing?

The crew are going on a simulated journey to an asteroid, a 715-day journey that we compress into 45 days. They will fly their simulated exploration vehicle around the asteroid once they arrive, conducting several site surveys before 2 of the crew members will participate in a series of virtual reality spacewalks.

They will also be participating in a suite of research investigations and will also engage in a wide range of operational and science activities, such as growing and analyzing plants and brine shrimp, maintaining and “operating” an important life support system, exercising on a stationary bicycle or using free weights, and sharpening their skills with a robotic arm simulation.

During the whole mission, they will consume food produced by the Johnson Space Center Food Lab – the same food that the astronauts enjoy on the International Space Station – which means that it needs to be rehydrated or warmed in a warming oven.

This simulation means that even when communicating with mission control, there will be a delay on all communications ranging from 1 to 5 minutes each way.

A few other details:

  • The crew follows a timeline that is similar to one used for the space station crew.
  • They work 16 hours a day, Monday through Friday. This includes time for daily planning, conferences, meals and exercise.
  • Mission: May 5 – June 18, 2018

But beware! While we do all we can to avoid crises during missions, crews need to be able to respond in the event of an emergency. The HERA crew will conduct a couple of emergency scenario simulations, including one that will require them to respond to a decrease in cabin pressure, potentially finding and repairing a leak in their spacecraft.

Throughout the mission, researchers will gather information about living in confinement, teamwork, team cohesion, mood, performance and overall well-being. The crew members will be tracked by numerous devices that each capture different types of data.

Learn more about the HERA mission HERE.

Explore the HERA habitat via 360-degree videos HERE.

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Exploring an Asteroid Without Leaving Earth

This 45 day mission – which begins Feb. 1, 2018 – will help our researchers learn how isolation and close quarters affect individual and group behavior. This study at our Johnson Space Center prepares us for long duration space missions, like a trip to an asteroid or even to Mars.

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The Human Research Exploration Analog (HERA) that the crew members will be living in is one compact, science-making house. But unlike in a normal house, these inhabitants won’t go outside for 45 days. Their communication with the rest of planet Earth will also be very limited, and they won’t have any access to internet. So no checking social media, kids!

The only people they will talk with regularly are mission control and each other.

image

The HERA XVI crew is made up of 2 men and 2 women, selected from the Johnson Space Center Test Subject Screening (TSS) pool. The crew member selection process is based on a number of criteria, including criteria similar to what is used for astronaut selection. The four would-be astronauts are:

  • Kent Kalogera
  • Jennifer Yen
  • Erin Hayward
  • Gregory Sachs

What will they be doing?

The crew are going on a simulated journey to an asteroid, a 715-day journey that we compress into 45 days. They will fly their simulated exploration vehicle around the asteroid once they arrive, conducting several site surveys before 2 of the crew members will participate in a series of virtual reality spacewalks.

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They will also be participating in a suite of research investigations and will also engage in a wide range of operational and science activities, such as growing and analyzing plants and brine shrimp, maintaining and “operating” an important life support system, exercising on a stationary bicycle or using free weights, and sharpening their skills with a robotic arm simulation. 

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During the whole mission, they will consume food produced by the Johnson Space Center Food Lab – the same food that the astronauts enjoy on the International Space Station – which means that it needs to be rehydrated or warmed in a warming oven.

This simulation means that even when communicating with mission control, there will be a delay on all communications ranging from 1 to 5 minutes each way.

A few other details:

  • The crew follows a timeline that is similar to one used for the space station crew.
  • They work 16 hours a day, Monday through Friday. This includes time for daily planning, conferences, meals and exercise.
  • Mission: February 1, 2018 – March 19, 2018
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But beware! While we do all we can to avoid crises during missions, crews need to be able to respond in the event of an emergency. The HERA crew will conduct a couple of emergency scenario simulations, including one that will require them to respond to a decrease in cabin pressure, potentially finding and repairing a leak in their spacecraft.

Throughout the mission, researchers will gather information about living in confinement, teamwork, team cohesion, mood, performance and overall well-being. The crew members will be tracked by numerous devices that each capture different types of data.

Learn more about the HERA mission HERE

Explore the HERA habitat via 360-degree videos HERE.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week

Every day, our spacecraft and people are exploring the solar system. Both the public and the private sectors are contributing to the quest. For example, here are ten things happening just this week:

1. We deliver. 

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The commercial space company Orbital ATK is targeting Saturday, Nov. 11 for the launch of its Cygnus spacecraft on an Antares rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. Cygnus is launching on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, carrying cargo and scientific experiments to the six people currently living on the microgravity laboratory. 

2. See for yourself. 

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Social media users are invited to register to attend another launch in person, this one of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This launch, currently targeted for no earlier than December, will be the next commercial cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The deadline to apply is Nov. 7. Apply HERE.

3. Who doesn’t like to gaze at the Moon?

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Our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) sure does—and from very close range. This robotic spacecraft has been orbiting Earth’s companion since 2009, returning views of the lunar surface that are so sharp they show the footpaths made by Apollo astronauts. Learn more about LRO and the entire history of lunar exploration at NASA’s newly-updated, expanded Moon site: moon.nasa.gov

4. Meanwhile at Mars…

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Another sharp-eyed robotic spacecraft has just delivered a fresh batch of equally detailed images. Our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) surveys the Red Planet’s surface daily, and you can see the very latest pictures of those exotic landscapes HERE. We currently operate five—count ‘em, five—active missions at Mars, with another (the InSight lander) launching next year. Track them all at: mars.nasa.gov.

5. Always curious. 

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One of those missions is the Curiosity rover. It’s currently climbing a rocky highland dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge, turning its full array of instruments on the intriguing geology there. Using those instruments, Curiosity can see things you and I can’t.

6. A new Dawn. 

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Our voyage to the asteroid belt has a new lease on life. The Dawn spacecraft recently received a mission extension to continue exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. This is exciting because minerals containing water are widespread on Ceres, suggesting it may have had a global ocean in the past. What became of that ocean? Could Ceres still have liquid today? Ongoing studies from Dawn could shed light on these questions.

7. There are eyes everywhere. 

When our Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997, it had five cameras: two on a mast that popped up from the lander, and three on the rover, Sojourner. Since then, photo sensors that were improved by the space program have shrunk in size, increased in quality and are now carried in every cellphone. That same evolution has returned to space. Our Mars 2020 mission will have more “eyes” than any rover before it: a grand total of 23, to create sweeping panoramas, reveal obstacles, study the atmosphere, and assist science instruments.

8. Voyage to a hidden ocean.

One of the most intriguing destinations in the solar system is Jupiter’s moon Europa, which hides a global ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. Our Europa Clipper mission sets sail in the 2020s to take a closer look than we’ve ever had before. You can explore Europa, too: europa.nasa.gov

9. Flight of the mockingbird. 

On Nov. 10, the main belt asteroid 19482 Harperlee, named for the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird, makes its closest approach to Earth during the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun. Details HERE. Learn more about asteroids HERE. Meanwhile, our OSIRIS-REx mission is now cruising toward another tiny, rocky world called Bennu.

10. What else is up this month? 

For sky watchers, there will be a pre-dawn pairing of Jupiter and Venus, the Moon will shine near some star clusters, and there will be meteor activity all month long. Catch our monthly video blog for stargazers HERE.

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13 Reasons to Have an Out-of-This-World Friday (the 13th)

1. Not all of humanity is bound to the ground

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Since 2000, the International Space Station has been continuously occupied by humans. There, crew members live and work while conducting important research that benefits life on Earth and will even help us eventually travel to deep space destinations, like Mars.

2. We’re working to develop quieter supersonic aircraft that would allow you to travel from New York to Los Angeles in 2 hours

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We are working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter – all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently. Seventy years after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 aircraft, we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy by working to create a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight.

3. The spacecraft, rockets and systems developed to send astronauts to low-Earth orbit as part of our Commercial Crew Program is also helping us get to Mars

Changes to the human body during long-duration spaceflight are significant challenges to solve ahead of a mission to Mars and back. The space station allows us to perform long duration missions without leaving Earth’s orbit.

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Although they are orbiting Earth, space station astronauts spend months at a time in near-zero gravity, which allows scientists to study several physiological changes and test potential solutions. The more time they spend in space, the more helpful the station crew members can be to those on Earth assembling the plans to go to Mars.

4. We’re launching a spacecraft in 2018 that will go “touch the Sun”

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In the summer of 2018, we’re launching Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that will get closer to the Sun than any other in human history. Parker Solar Probe will fly directly through the Sun’s atmosphere, called the corona. Getting better measurements of this region is key to understanding our Sun. 

For instance, the Sun releases a constant outflow of solar material, called the solar wind. We think the corona is where this solar wind is accelerated out into the solar system, and Parker Solar Probe’s measurements should help us pinpoint how that happens.  

5. You can digitally fly along with spacecraft…that are actually in space…in real-time!

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NASA’s Eyes are immersive, 3D simulations of real events, spacecraft locations and trajectories. Through this interactive app, you can experience Earth and our solar system, the universe and the spacecraft exploring them. Want to watch as our Juno spacecraft makes its next orbit around Juno? You can! Or relive all of the Voyager mission highlights in real-time? You can do that too! Download the free app HERE to start exploring.

6. When you feel far away from home, you can think of the New Horizons spacecraft as it heads toward the Kuiper Belt, and the Voyager spacecraft are beyond the influence of our sun…billions of miles away

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Our New Horizons spacecraft completed its Pluto flyby in July 2015 and has continued on its way toward the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft continues to send back important data as it travels toward deeper space at more than 32,000 miles per hour, and is ~3.2 billion miles from Earth.

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In addition to New Horizons, our twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before. Continuing on their more-than-37-year journey since their 1977 launches, they are each much farther away from Earth and the sun than Pluto. In August 2012, Voyager 1 made the historic entry into interstellar space, the region between the stars, filled with material ejected by the death of nearby stars millions of years ago.

7. There are humans brave enough to not only travel in space, but venture outside space station to perform important repairs and updates during spacewalks

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Just this month (October 2017) we’ve already had two spacewalks on the International Space Station…with another scheduled on Oct. 20. 

Spacewalks are important events where crew members repair, maintain and upgrade parts of the International Space Station. These activities can also be referred to as EVAs – Extravehicular Activities. Not only do spacewalks require an enormous amount of work to prepare for, but they are physically demanding on the astronauts. They are working in the vacuum of space in only their spacewalking suit. 

8. Smart people are up all night working in control rooms all over NASA to ensure that data keeps flowing from our satellites and spacecraft

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Our satellites and spacecraft help scientists study Earth and space. Missions looking toward Earth provide information about clouds, oceans, land and ice. They also measure gases in the atmosphere, such as ozone and carbon dioxide and the amount of energy that Earth absorbs and emits. And satellites monitor wildfires, volcanoes and their smoke.

9. A lot of NASA-developed tech has been transferred for use to the public

Our Technology Transfer Program highlights technologies that were originally designed for our mission needs, but have since been introduced to the public market. HERE are a few spinoff technologies that you might not know about.

10. We have a spacecraft currently traveling  to an asteroid to collect a sample and bring it back to Earth

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OSIRIS-REx is our first-ever mission that will travel to an asteroid and bring a sample of it back to Earth. Currently, the spacecraft is on its way to asteroid Bennu where it will survey and map the object before it “high-fives” the asteroid with its robotic arm to collect a sample, which it will send to Earth.

If everything goes according to plan, on Sept. 24, 2023, the capsule containing the asteroid sample will make a soft landing in the Utah desert.

11. There are Earth-sized planets outside our solar system that may be habitable

To date, we have confirmed 3,000+ exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system that orbit a Sun-like star. Of these 3,000, some are in the habitable zone – where the temperature is just right for liquid water to exist on the surface.  

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Recently, our Spitzer Space Telescope revealed the first known system of SEVEN Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these plants are firmly in the habitable zone, and could have liquid water on the surface, which is key to life as we know it.

12. Earth looks like art from space

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In 1960, the United States put its first Earth-observing environmental satellite into orbit around the planet. Over the decades, these satellites have provided invaluable information, and the vantage point of space has provided new perspectives on Earth.

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The beauty of Earth is clear, and the artistry ranges from the surreal to the sublime.

13. We’re building a telescope that will be able to see the first stars ever formed in the universe

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Wouldn’t it be neat to see a period of the universe’s history that we’ve never seen before? That’s exactly what the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to do…plus more!

Specifically, Webb will see the first objects that formed as the universe cooled down after the Big Bang. We don’t know exactly when the universe made the first stars and galaxies – or how for that matter. That is what we are building Webb to help answer.

Happy Friday the 13th! We hope it’s out-of-this-world!

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

What’s next for NASA? A quick look at some of the big things coming up:

1. We will add to our existing robotic fleet at the Red Planet with the InSight Mars lander set to study the planet’s interior.

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This terrestrial planet explorer will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science – understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.

2. The Mars 2020 rover will look for signs of past microbial life, gather samples for potential future return to Earth.

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The Mars 2020 mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on the Red Planet in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars.

3. The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, studying the history of our Universe in infrared.

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Webb will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own solar system.

4. The Parker Solar Probe will “touch the Sun,” traveling closer to the surface than any spacecraft before.

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This spacecraft, about the size of a small car, will travel directly into the sun’s atmosphere about 4 million miles from our star’s surface. Parker Solar Probe and its four suites of instruments – studying magnetic and electric fields, energetic particles, and the solar wind – will be protected from the Sun’s enormous heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite heat shield.

5. Our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrives at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in August 2018, and will return a sample for study in 2023.

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This mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

6. Launching in 2018, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will search for planets around 200,000 bright, nearby stars.

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The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is the next step in the search for planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets), including those that could support life. The mission will find exoplanets that periodically block part of the light from their host stars, events called transits.

7. A mission to Jupiter’s ocean-bearing moon Europa is being planned for launch in the 2020s.

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The mission will place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of Europa – a world that shows strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust and which could host conditions favorable for life.

8. We will launch our first integrated test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, known as Exploration Mission-1.

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The Space Launch System rocket will launch with Orion atop it. During Exploration Mission-1, Orion will venture thousands of miles beyond the moon during an approximately three week mission.

9. We are looking at what a flexible deep space gateway near the Moon could be.

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We’ve issued a draft announcement seeking U.S. industry-led studies for an advanced solar electric propulsion (SEP) vehicle capability. The studies will help define required capabilities and reduce risk for the 50 kilowatt-class SEP needed for the agency’s near-term exploration goals.

10. Want to know more? Read the full story.

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

Our Dawn mission to the asteroid belt is no ordinary deep space expedition. 

Instead of traditional chemical rockets, the spacecraft uses sophisticated ion engines for propulsion. This enabled Dawn to become the first mission to orbit not one, but two different worlds — first the giant asteroid Vesta and now the dwarf planet Ceres. Vesta and Ceres formed early in the solar system’s history, and by studying them, the mission is helping scientists go back in time to the dawn of the planets. To mark a decade since Dawn was launched on Sept. 27, 2007, here are 10 things to know about this trailblazing mission.

1. Ion Engines: Not Just for Sci-Fi Anymore

Most rocket engines use chemical reactions for propulsion, which tend to be powerful but short-lived. Dawn’s futuristic, hyper-efficient ion propulsion system works by using electricity to accelerate ions (charged particles) from xenon fuel to a speed seven to 10 times that of chemical engines. Ion engines accelerate the spacecraft slowly, but they’re very thrifty with fuel, using just milligrams of xenon per second (about 10 ounces over 24 hours) at maximum thrust. Without its ion engines, Dawn could not have carried enough fuel to go into orbit around two different solar system bodies. Try your hand at an interactive ion engine simulation.

2. Time Capsules 

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Scientists have long wanted to study Vesta and Ceres up close. Vesta is a large, complex and intriguing asteroid. Ceres is the largest object in the entire asteroid belt, and was once considered a planet in its own right after it was discovered in 1801. Vesta and Ceres have significant differences, but both are thought to have formed very early in the history of the solar system, harboring clues about how planets are constructed. Learn more about Ceres and Vesta—including why we have pieces of Vesta here on Earth.

3. Portrait of a Dwarf Planet

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This view of Ceres built from Dawn photos is centered on Occator Crater, home of the famous “bright spots.” The image resolution is about 460 feet (140 meters) per pixel.

Take a closer look.

4. What’s in a Name? 

Craters on Ceres are named for agricultural deities from all over the world, and other features carry the names of agricultural festivals. Ceres itself was named after the Roman goddess of corn and harvests (that’s also where the word “cereal” comes from). The International Astronomical Union recently approved 25 new Ceres feature names tied to the theme of agricultural deities. Jumi, for example, is the Latvian god of fertility of the field. Study the full-size map.

5. Landslides or Ice Slides? 

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Thanks to Dawn, evidence is mounting that Ceres hides a significant amount of water ice. A recent study adds to this picture, showing how ice may have shaped the variety of landslides seen on Ceres today.

6. The Lonely Mountain 

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Ahuna Mons, a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain, puzzled Ceres explorers when they first found it. It rises all alone above the surrounding plains. Now scientists think it is likely a cryovolcano — one that erupts a liquid made of volatiles such as water, instead of rock. “This is the only known example of a cryovolcano that potentially formed from a salty mud mix, and that formed in the geologically recent past,” one researcher said. Learn more.

7. Shining a Light on the Bright Spots 

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The brightest area on Ceres, located in the mysterious Occator Crater, has the highest concentration of carbonate minerals ever seen outside Earth, according to studies from Dawn scientists. Occator is 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide, with a central pit about 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide. The dominant mineral of this bright area is sodium carbonate, a kind of salt found on Earth in hydrothermal environments. This material appears to have come from inside Ceres, and this upwelling suggests that temperatures inside Ceres are warmer than previously believed. Even more intriguingly, the results suggest that liquid water may have existed beneath the surface of Ceres in recent geological time. The salts could be remnants of an ocean, or localized bodies of water, that reached the surface and then froze millions of years ago. See more details.

8. Captain’s Log 

Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, Marc Rayman, provides regular dispatches about Dawn’s work in the asteroid belt. Catch the latest updates here.

9. Eyes on Dawn 

Another cool way to retrace Dawn’s decade-long flight is to download NASA’s free Eyes on the Solar System app, which uses real data to let you go to any point in the solar system, or ride along with any spacecraft, at any point in time—all in 3-D.

10. No Stamp Required

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Send a postcard from one of these three sets of images that tell the story of dwarf planet Ceres, protoplanet Vesta, and the Dawn mission overall.

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

See history in the making on September 22! That’s the day OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth, will make a close approach to Earth as it uses our planet’s gravity to slingshot itself toward the asteroid Bennu. 

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Over the course of several days, observatories and amateur astronomers will be able to spot the spacecraft. Below, 10 things to know about this incredible mission that will bring us the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era.

1. Big Deal

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OSIRIS-REx seeks answers to the questions that are central to the human experience: Where did we come from? What is our destiny? Asteroids, the leftover debris from the solar system formation process, can help us answer these questions and teach us about the history of the Sun and planets.

2. That’s a Long Acronym

Yup. OSIRIS-REx stands for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft. The gist: It will rendezvous with, study, and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth.

3. Lots of Instruments, Too

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While all the acronyms for each instrument may be alphabet soup, each has a job/role to perform in order to complete the mission. Explore what each one will do in this interactive webpage. 

4. Nice to Meet You, Bennu

Scientists chose Bennu as the mission target because of its composition, size, and proximity to Earth. Bennu is a rare B-type asteroid (primitive and carbon-rich), which is expected to have organic compounds and water-bearing minerals like clays.

5. Hard Knock Life

Bennu had a tough life in a rough neighborhood: the early solar system. It’s an asteroid the size of a small mountain born from the rubble of a violent collision, hurled through space for millions of years and dismembered by the gravity of planets—but that’s exactly what makes it a fascinating destination.

6. High Fives All Around

In 2018, OSIRIS-REx will approach Bennu and begin an intricate dance with the asteroid, mapping and studying Bennu in preparation for sample collection. In July 2020, the spacecraft will perform a daring maneuver in which its 11-foot arm will reach out for a five-second “high-five” to stir up surface material, collecting at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of small rocks and dust into a sample return capsule.

7. Home Sweet Home

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OSIRIS-REx launched on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida on an Atlas V rocket. In March 2021, the window for departure from the asteroid will open and OSIRIS-REx will begin its return journey to Earth, arriving two-and-a-half years later in September 2023.

8. Precious Cargo

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The sample will head to Earth inside of a return capsule with a heat shield and parachutes that will separate from the spacecraft once it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule containing the sample will be collected at the Utah Test and Training Range. Once it arrives, it will be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for examination. For two years after the sample return (from late 2023-2025) the science team will catalog the sample and conduct the analysis needed to meet the mission science goals. NASA will preserve at least 75% of the sample at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston for further research by scientists worldwide, including future generations of scientists.

9. Knowledge Is Power

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Analyzing the sample will help scientists understand the early solar system, as well as the hazards and resources of near-Earth space. Asteroids are remnants of the building blocks that formed the planets and enabled life. Those like Bennu contain natural resources such as water, organics and metals. Future space exploration and economic development may rely on asteroids for these materials.

10. Hitch a Ride

Journey with OSIRIS-REx as it launches, cruises, and arrives to Bennu in this interactive timeline.

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

We love Lucy—our spacecraft that will visit the ancient Trojan asteroids near Jupiter, that is. This week, let us count the ways this 2021 mission could revolutionize what we know about the origins of Earth and ourselves.

1. Lucky Lucy 

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Earlier this year, we selected the Lucy mission to make the first-ever visit to a group of asteroids known as the Trojans. This swarm of asteroids orbits in two loose groups around the Sun, with one group always ahead of Jupiter in its path, and the other always behind. The bodies are stabilized by the Sun and Jupiter in a gravitational balancing act, gathering in locations known as Lagrange points.

2. Old. Really, Really Old

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Jupiter’s swarms of Trojan asteroids may be remnants of the material that formed our outer planets more than 4 billion years ago—so these fossils may help reveal our most distant origins. “They hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system,” said Dr. Harold F. Levison, Lucy principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

3. A Link to The Beatles

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Lucy takes its name from the fossilized human ancestor, called “Lucy” by her discoverers, whose skeleton provided unique insight into humanity’s evolution. On the night it was discovered in 1974, the team’s celebration included dancing and singing to The Beatles’ song “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” At some point during that evening, expedition member Pamela Alderman named the skeleton “Lucy,” and the name stuck. Jump ahead to 2013 and the mission’s principal investigator, Dr. Levison, was inspired by that link to our beginnings to name the spacecraft after Lucy the fossil. The connection to The Beatles’ song was just icing on the cake.

4. Travel Itinerary

One of two missions selected in a highly competitive process, Lucy will launch in October 2021. With boosts from Earth’s gravity, it will complete a 12-year journey to seven different asteroids: a Main Belt asteroid and six Trojans.

5. Making History

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No other space mission in history has been launched to as many different destinations in independent orbits around the Sun. Lucy will show us, for the first time, the diversity of the primordial bodies that built the planets.

6. What Lies Beneath 

Lucy’s complex path will take it to both clusters of Trojans and give us our first close-up view of all three major types of bodies in the swarms (so-called C-, P- and D-types). The dark-red P- and D-type Trojans resemble those found in the Kuiper Belt of icy bodies that extends beyond the orbit of Neptune. The C-types are found mostly in the outer parts of the Main Belt of asteroids, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. All of the Trojans are thought to be abundant in dark carbon compounds. Below an insulating blanket of dust, they are probably rich in water and other volatile substances.

7. Pretzel, Anyone?

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This diagram illustrates Lucy’s orbital path. The spacecraft’s path (green) is shown in a slowly turning frame of reference that makes Jupiter appear stationary, giving the trajectory its pretzel-like shape.

8. Moving Targets

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This time-lapsed animation shows the movements of the inner planets (Mercury, brown; Venus, white; Earth, blue; Mars, red), Jupiter (orange), and the two Trojan swarms (green) during the course of the Lucy mission.

9. Long To-Do List

Lucy and its impressive suite of remote-sensing instruments will study the geology, surface composition, and physical properties of the Trojans at close range. The payload includes three imaging and mapping instruments, including a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer and a thermal infrared spectrometer. Lucy also will perform radio science investigations using its telecommunications system to determine the masses and densities of the Trojan targets.

10. Dream Team

Several institutions will come together to successfully pull off this mission. The Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, is the principal investigator institution. Our Goddard Space Flight Center will provide overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. Instruments will be provided by Goddard, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and Arizona State University. Discovery missions are overseen by the Planetary Missions Program Office at our Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for our Planetary Science Division.

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