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Elation as Nasa's Osiris-Rex probe tags asteroid Bennu in sample bid – BBC News

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Elation as Nasa’s Osiris-Rex probe tags asteroid Bennu in sample bid

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By Jonathan Amos
BBC Science Correspondent

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.css-14iz86j-BoldTextfont-weight:bold;America’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft has completed its audacious tag-and-go manoeuvre designed to grab surface rock from an asteroid.

Radio signals from 330 million km away confirm the probe made contact with the 500m-wide object known as Bennu.

But .css-yidnqd-InlineLink:linkcolor:#3F3F42;.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visitedcolor:#696969;.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visitedfont-weight:bolder;border-bottom:1px solid #BABABA;-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link:hover,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited:hover,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link:focus,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited:focusborder-bottom-color:currentcolor;border-bottom-width:2px;color:#B80000;@supports (text-underline-offset:0.25em).css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visitedborder-bottom:none;-webkit-text-decoration:underline #BABABA;text-decoration:underline #BABABA;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:1px;text-decoration-thickness:1px;-webkit-text-decoration-skip-ink:none;text-decoration-skip-ink:none;text-underline-offset:0.25em;.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link:hover,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited:hover,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:link:focus,.css-yidnqd-InlineLink:visited:focus-webkit-text-decoration-color:currentcolor;text-decoration-color:currentcolor;-webkit-text-decoration-thickness:2px;text-decoration-thickness:2px;color:#B80000;the Nasa-led mission will have to wait on further data from Osiris-Rex before it’s known for sure that material was actually picked up.

The aim was to acquire at least 60g, perhaps even a kilo or more.

Because Bennu is a very primitive space object, scientists say its surface grit and dust could hold fascinating clues about the chemistry that brought the Sun and the planets into being more than 4.5 billion years ago.

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Elation in mission control

image copyrightLockheed Martin Space

“The team is exuberant; emotions are high; everyone is really proud,” said principal investigator Dante Lauretta from the University of Arizona, Tucson.

“This was the key milestone of this mission. Now it’s a few days to figure out how much of this amazing sample we got that we’ve been thinking about for decades,” added Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s associate administrator for science.

Both men were following events from mission control at spacecraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

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Assuming there is a suitable sample safely aboard, the probe will be able to package it for return to Earth, scheduled for 2023.

If not, the mission team will have to configure Osiris-Rex for another go.

The spacecraft made its sample bid in a narrow patch of northern terrain on Bennu dubbed Nightingale.

The probe descended slowly to the 8m-wide target zone over a period of four-and-a-half hours, squeezing past some imposing boulders on the way, including a two-storey-high block that had been dubbed Mount Doom.

Osiris-Rex used what some have described as a “reverse vacuum cleaner” to make its surface grab.

Bennu size comparison with Empire State Building

More properly called the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or Tag-Sam, this device is a long boom with a ring-shaped collection chamber on the end.

The idea was to push the ring into the surface and at the same moment express a stream of nitrogen gas to kick up small fragments of rock.

Sensors on Osiris-Rex reported back to mission controllers that all the actions in the sampling sequence had been completed successfully, and that the spacecraft had backed away from Bennu as planned after a few seconds of contact.

But the science and engineering team will need time to assess what exactly might have been caught in the collection chamber.

One way to do this is to photograph the ring head. This will be done in the coming days.

But controllers will also command the spacecraft to spin itself around with the boom and Tag-Sam ring outstretched. Any extra mass on board will change the amount of torque required to turn the probe, compared with the amount needed to perform the same rotation exercise prior to sample acquisition.

This measurement technique will give a quantity precise to within a few 10s of grams.

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Tag-Sam

image copyrightLockheed Martin Space

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Osisris-Rex took pictures all the way through its descent but could not send any of these home at the time because its high-gain antenna was not pointed at Earth.

Once the probe has re-established this connection, the data can be downlinked.

“Those images are going to tell us an enormous amount of information about how the events of today went,” said Prof Lauretta. “For one thing they will tell us about the likelihood of sample collection, a kind of probabilistic assessment.”

Nasa promises to release some of these pictures on Wednesday.

Numerous scientists, including in the UK, are hoping to get the chance to analyse any materials brought back from Bennu – among them Sara Russell from London’s Natural History Museum.

Asteroids like Bennu formed in the very, very earliest times of the Solar System. They are basically the building blocks of the planets – a time capsule that will tell us how the Sun and the planets came into being and evolved. Bennu can really help us to drill down into how that process actually happens,” she told BBC News.

Bennu

image copyrightNASA/Goddard/UoA

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European Space Agency inks deal to deploy massive space pincers to clean up orbit – ZDNet

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The European Space Agency (ESA) has inked a deal with ClearSpace SA to clean up orbit with craft equipped with pincers designed to grab space junk. 

As space agencies and private companies go beyond research and start exploring the potential of commercial space and tourism, the space ‘junk’ we are accumulating will only grow.

This is a severe issue, considering the smallest satellite or piece of defunct technology zooming around at thousands of meters per second, if it collides with craft or other objects, can cause massive damage that also sends additional debris into space. 

To tackle the problem, the ESA has signed an €86 million contract with startup ClearSpace to fund and launch debris-removal missions. 

Due to launch in 2025, the first active debris removal mission, dubbed ClearSpace-1, will propel a craft into space equipped with pincers able to capture satellites. In this test, the ESA says that ClearSpace craft will “rendezvous, capture and bring down for reentry a Vespa payload adapter.”


ClearSpace

The adapter, a leftover from a 2013 mission, has a mass of 112kg and is roughly the size of a small satellite. 

“Cleaning space is no longer optional,” ClearSpace says in its mission statement. “Removing human-made space debris has become necessary and is our responsibility to ensure that tomorrow’s generations can continue benefiting from space infrastructures and exploration.”

ClearSpace was selected out of 12 candidates in 2019 by the ESA to develop a commercial debris removal solution for space. 

The ESA is only partially funding the mission and the agency intends to raise the rest of the mission cost from commercial investors interested in the technology. 

See also: Intel sends AI to space in launch of a satellite the size of a cereal box

According to the ESA’s latest Space Environment report, there are over 25,000 objects in space — including satellites and various hunks of debris — and rocket bodies, upper stages leftover from launches, and malfunctioning satellites that can’t be deorbited are forms of space junk causing the most concern. 

The majority of objects on the list were launched before 2000 and modern space junk mitigation guidelines were adopted by space agencies. 

In October, IBM revealed a separate project designed to tackle the emerging problem of space junk. A new open source venture between the tech giant and Dr. Moriba Jah at the University of Texas at Austin is focused on predicting where space objects are in orbit, and where they are likely to go. 

By accurately predicting future orbit positions through the creation of machine learning (ML)-based algorithms, this could help companies such as ClearSpace track junk and clean up orbit more effectively. 

Previous and related coverage


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Elon Musk's satellites now streaming to some rural N.B. homes – CBC.ca

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Billionaire Elon Musk’s satellite internet service is now streaming to some homes in New Brunswick.

Starlink has enlisted some households in rural areas of Canada and the northern US to test the service before a full launch, possibly in mid 2021.

Greg Rekounas of the Kingston Peninsula is one of those who signed on to help test the high-speed internet service.

The database administrator, who works from home for an IT company, said he has to be connected at all times.

After barely a week with the new service, he’s bowled over by the difference over his previous DLS link, which sometimes forced him to stop using his camera while participating in work related video-conferencing.

“It changes everything,” said Rekounas. “For me, it was almost to the point where I was considering moving.  And now that thought is out of my head.”

Providing service to people around the world

Musk has been using SpaceX, his rocket company, to blast clusters of 60 low earth orbit satellites into space since May, 2019. The twice-monthly launches have so far planted 955 satellites in low earth orbit, about 550 kilometres above the earth.

The satellites can provide service improvements to people all over the world who are without access to high-speed internet.

A cluster of 60 Starlink satellites is launched from a SpaceX rocket earlier this year. There are 955 units that orbit the earth and 11,000 more are to be launched by 2024. (SpaceX, via Twitter)

Rekounas said it will certainly be welcome in homes in rural parts of New Brunswick.

“They’re able to video conference, they’re able to download, they’re able to stream. They’re able to stay connected almost a hundred per cent of the time,” he said.

Service comes with a price

Upfront costs could be a barrier to some.  Rekounas paid $820 for the required Starlink hardware, a satellite receiving dish, modem, power supply and 100 feet of cable.

The subscription fee is then $130 a month.

The goal is to have 12,000 in orbit by 2024. 

SpaceX did not respond Thursday to a CBC interview request.

Musk is expected to face tough competition from Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, who has his own rocket company, Blue Origin, and is planning an alternate satellite internet service with 3,200 spacecraft in low earth orbit.

Another company, Telesat, which originates in Canada, also has plans to enter the low earth orbit internet market with 298 satellites.

The thousands of new satellites, and others likely to follow, are raising questions about the potential impact on the night skies and on the science of astronomy.

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Thailand: Rare whale skeleton discovered – BBC News

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.css-14iz86j-BoldTextfont-weight:bold;An almost perfectly preserved whale skeleton thought to be between 3,000 and 5,000 years old has been discovered in Thailand.

The bones were found in early November some 12km (7.5 miles) off the coast just to the west of Bangkok.

The 12m (39ft) long skeleton is thought to be that of a Bryde’s whale.

Experts hope the find might provide “a window into the past,” especially for research on sea levels and biodiversity.

The partially fossilised bones are “a rare find,” mammal researcher Marcus Chua of the National University of Singapore told the BBC.

“There are few whale subfossils in Asia,” he said, and even fewer ones are “in such good condition”.

Pictures shared by Thailand’s environment minister Varawut Silpa-archa show the bones apparently almost entirely intact.

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Whale skeleton with researchers

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According to the politician, more than 80% of the skeleton has so far been recovered, including vertebrae, ribs, fins and one shoulder blade.

The skeleton’s head alone is estimated to be about 3m in length.

Mr Chua says the discovery will allow researchers to find out more about the particular species in the past, whether there were any differences compared to today’s Bryde’s whales.

The skeleton will also provide information about the “paleobiological and geological conditions at that time, including sea level estimation, types of sediments, and the contemporary biological communities at that time”.

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  • Rare dinosaur bones ‘belong to different species’
  • Scientists unearth skull of human ancestor ‘cousin’

“So this find provides a window into the past once the skeleton has been dated,” Mr Chua says.

The bones are yet to be carbon-dated to determine their exact age, with the results expected in December.

Whale skeleton

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The gulf of Thailand has an interesting history in the last 10,000 years, the biologist points out, with sea levels possibly up to 4m higher than today and active tectonic activity.

The skeleton was found off the current coastline in Samut Sakhon.

Bryde’s whales, which live worldwide in warm temperate and tropical waters, are still found in the waters around Thailand today.

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