Circle back (9/7/23)
Good afternoon. Shoutout to Japan’s space agency, JAXA, which oversaw the successful launch and initial deployment of its XRISM X-ray observatory yesterday. Once ramped up and fully commissioned, the shiny new space telescope will turn its focus to the plasma flowing through stars and galaxies. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be on the edge of my seat ‘til that data beams back.
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OSIRIS-REx Makes the Long Trek Home
It sounds like science fiction, but it’s a real-life truth that we’re able to build a probe that launches on top of a rocket, navigates to a 500-meter-wide chunk of metal 75 million km away from Earth, enters a super-tight orbit, touches down, grabs a robotic handful of asteroid, then jets right on towards home.
NASA’s been there, done that. Now, the mission, OSIRIS-REx, is making its final approach to Earth with a sample of the asteroid Bennu in tow, and the agency is in high gear, preparing to receive it properly.
Mission objectives: There’s a lot that scientists can learn from a humble handful of rock and dust from the surface of an asteroid. The chemical composition of a hunk of rock like Bennu could yield clues to how Earth formed, to the origins of organic material and life, and, more practically, could help researchers understand how resources from an asteroid could be harnessed for space exploration and manufacturing.
The mission was designed to grab the largest sample ever collected from the surface of an asteroid—at least 60 g and up to 2000 g.
The journey so far: The mission blasted off from Cape Canaveral just about exactly seven years ago, on Sept. 8, 2016. The probe arrived at Bennu—which was chosen for its size and relative proximity to Earth—two years later, then spent another two years orbiting the asteroid, taking 3D scans and measuring its X-ray emissions, temperature, and mineral composition.
In collecting the sample, OSIRIS-REx never actually landed on Bennu. Instead, it hovered close to the surface and deployed its robotic arm, called TAGSAM (Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism), which collected a fistful of regolith (i.e., rock and dust).
The craft then had to wait another year for Earth and Bennu to line up well enough to begin its journey home. Flash forward two years, and the moment of the craft’s triumphant return has nearly arrived.
Catch rehearsals: While it would be nice for a sample from space to navigate perfectly and gently back home, the fact is that there’s a little more room for error in the recovery process. OSIRIS-REx is expected to deploy the capsule containing the sample above Earth’s atmosphere later this month. The sample will then parachute down to the Department of Defense-run recovery range in Utah, where the NASA team will stand ready to grab it.
The team has been conducting practice runs. In these tests, a practice capsule is dropped from a helicopter, after which the team has to track it to a landing site, retrieve it as quickly as possible to prevent possible Earthly contamination, then load it into a helicopter to transport it to a nearby temporary clean room.
What’s next? No pressure or anything, but the whole mission is now relying on the safe recovery and return of the Bennu sample somewhere in the vast Utah desert.
Once safely collected, the team will set aside at least 75% of the sample for future scientific observations, then begin its survey of the chemical composition of the rest.
Lifting Humankind to New Heights
NASA's Space Launch System is the world’s most powerful heavy-lift rocket.
The SLS, including the Boeing-built core stage, is designed to send humanity back to the Moon, on to Mars, and into the unexplored.
Learn more about how NASA’s Space Launch System is paving the way for humanity to go farther than it has ever gone before.
Other News from the Cosmos
Ingenuity, NASA’s Mars helicopter, has logged more than 100 minutes of flight time.
MOXIE has completed its mission on the Red Planet after pulling 122 grams of oxygen from the Martian atmosphere across the last two years.
Redwire successfully 3D printed a human knee meniscus aboard the ISS using its 3D biofabrication facility.
An explosion spotted in the sky that flashed brightly then quickly faded has been dubbed a “luminous fast cooler” by astronomers for the first time.
A black hole 500M light years away from us was spotted siphoning off mass equivalent to three Earths each time it passes by a nearby Sun-sized star.
ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) observed the furthest galaxy’s magnetic field yet.
A bubble of galaxies 1B light years wide was identified by astronomers at the University of Hawai’i.
🤯 A cosmological crisis: Astronomy is facing a conundrum. To quote the wise words of Gnarls Barkley, it isn’t because we don’t know enough—we just know too much. In an op-ed for the New York Times, astrophysicist Adam Frank and theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser explain how the bounty of detailed data from JWST over the last year is challenging previously accepted ideas about how the universe as we know it came together, and how scientists will have to adjust in response.
🌊 Ebb and flow: The universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, and though scientists have put a name to the unseen force that could explain that acceleration—“dark energy”—there’s still a lot we don’t understand. In an article for Scientific American, science journalist Sarah Scoles dissects what we know about this mysterious force and whether or not we know if the expansion of the universe will ever stop.
The View from Space