Japan’s space agency is nearing the end of a journey of discovery that aims to shed light on the earliest eons of the solar system and possibly provide clues about the origins of life on Earth.
But first, it is going to have to go on a scavenger hunt in the Australian outback.
This weekend, bits of an asteroid will land in a barren region near Woomera, South Australia. These are being ferried to Earth by Hayabusa2, a robotic space probe launched by JAXA, Japan’s space agency, in 2014 to explore an asteroid named Ryugu, a dark, carbon-rich rock a bit more than half a mile wide.
The success of the mission and the science it produces will raise Japan’s status as a central player in deep space exploration, together with NASA, the European Space Agency and Russia. JAXA currently has a spacecraft in orbit around Venus studying that planet’s hellish climate and is collaborating with the Europeans on a mission that is on its way to Mercury.
But the immediate challenge will be searching in darkness for a 16-inch-wide capsule containing the asteroid samples somewhere amid hundreds of square miles in a region 280 miles north of Adelaide, the nearest large city.
“It’s really in the middle of nowhere,” said Shogo Tachibana, the principal investigator in charge of the analysis of the Hayabusa2 samples. He is part of a team of more than 70 people from Japan who have arrived in Woomera for recovery of the capsule. The area, used by the Australian military for testing, provides a wide open space that is ideal for the return of an interplanetary probe.
The small return capsule separated from the main spacecraft about 12 hours before the scheduled landing, when it was about 125,000 miles from Earth. JAXA will broadcast live coverage of the capsule’s landing beginning at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday. (It will be pre-dawn hours on Sunday in Australia.)
The capsule is expected to hit the ground a few minutes before noon.
In an interview, Makoto Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said there is an uncertainty of about 10 kilometers, or about six miles, in pinpointing where the capsule will re-enter the atmosphere. At an altitude of six miles, the capsule will release a parachute, and where it will drift as it descends will add to the uncertainty.
“The landing place depends on the wind on that day,” Dr. Yoshikawa said. The area that searchers might have to cover could stretch some 60 miles, he said.
The trail of the fireball of superheated air created by the re-entering capsule will help guide the recovery team, as will the capsule’s radio beacon. The task will become much more difficult if the beacon fails or if the parachute fails to deploy.
There is a bit of a rush, too. The team hopes to recover the capsule, perform initial analysis and whisk it back to Japan within 100 hours. Even though the capsule is sealed, the worry is that Earth air will slowly leak in. “There is no perfect sealing,” Dr. Tachibana said.
Once the capsule is found, a helicopter will take it to a laboratory that has been set up at the Australian air force base at Woomera. There an instrument will extract any gases within the capsule that may have been released by the asteroid rocks as they were shaken and broken during re-entry. Dr. Yoshikawa said the scientists would also like to see if they can detect any solar wind particles of helium that slammed into the asteroid and became embedded in the rocks.
The gases would also reassure the scientists that Hayabusa2 did indeed successfully collect samples from Ryugu. A minimum of 0.1 grams, or less than 1/280th of an ounce, is needed to declare success. The hope is the spacecraft brought back several grams.
In Japan, the Hayabusa2 team will begin analysis of the Ryugu samples. In about a year, some of the samples will be shared with other scientists for additional study.
To gather these samples, Hayabusa2 arrived at the asteroid in June 2018. It executed a series of investigations, each of escalating technical complexity. It dropped probes to the surface of Ryugu, blasted a hole in the asteroid to peer at what lies beneath and twice descended to the surface to grab small pieces of the asteroid, an operation that proved much more challenging than expected because of the many boulders on the surface.
Small worlds like Ryugu used to be of little interest to planetary scientists who focused on studying planets, said Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, part of JAXA. “Minor bodies, who cares?” he said. “But if you are serious about the formation of planetary systems, small bodies actually matter.”
Studying water trapped in minerals from Ryugu could give hints if the water in Earth’s oceans came from asteroids, and if carbon-based molecules could have seeded the building blocks for life.
Part of the Ryugu samples will go to NASA, which is bringing back some rocks and soil from another asteroid with its OSIRIS-REX mission. The OSIRIS-REX space probe has been studying a smaller carbon-rich asteroid named Bennu and it will start back to Earth next spring, dropping off its rock samples in September 2023.
Ryugu and Bennu turned out to be surprisingly similar in some ways, both looking like spinning tops and with surfaces covered with boulders, but different in other ways. The rocks on Ryugu appear to contain much less water, for one. The significance of the similarities and differences will not become clear until after scientists study the rocks in more detail.
“When the OSIRIS-REX sample comes back, we will have lessons learned from the Hayabusa2 mission,” said Harold C. Connolly Jr., a geology professor at Rowan University in New Jersey and the mission sample scientist for OSIRIS-REX. “The similarities and differences are absolutely fascinating.”
Dr. Connolly hopes to go to Japan next summer to take part in analyzing the Ryugu samples.
Hayabusa2 is not Japan’s first planetary mission. Indeed, its name points to the existence of Hayabusa, an earlier mission that brought back samples from another asteroid, Itokawa. But that mission, which launched in 2003 and returned in 2010, faced major technical problems. So did JAXA’s Akatsuki spacecraft, currently in orbit around Venus, which the Japanese agency managed to restore to a scientific mission after years of difficulty. A Japanese mission to Mars also failed in 2003.
By contrast, operations of Hayabusa2 have gone almost flawlessly, even though it retains the same general design as its predecessor. “Actually, there are no big issues,” Dr. Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said. “Of course, small ones.”
He said the team studied in detail the failures on Hayabusa and made changes as needed, and also conducted numerous rehearsals to try to anticipate any contingencies it might encounter.
The Japanese missions generally operate on smaller budgets than NASA’s and thus often carry fewer instruments. Hayabusa2’s cost is less than $300 million while OSIRIS-REX’s price will run about $1 billion.
Dropping off the Ryugu samples is not the end of the Hayabusa2 mission. After releasing the return capsule, the main spacecraft shifted course to avoid a collision with Earth, missing by 125 miles. It will now travel to another asteroid, a tiny one designated 1998 KY26 that is only 100 feet in diameter but spinning rapidly, completing one rotation in less than 11 minutes.
Hayabusa2 will use two flybys of Earth to fling itself toward KY26, finally arriving in 2031. It will conduct some astronomical experiments during its extended deep space journey, and the spacecraft still carries one last projectile that it may use to test that space rock’s surface.
Canadians Can Now Sign Up for Starlink Internet Beta Without an Invite, If Eligible – iPhone in Canada
SpaceX has made changes to its Starlink internet beta website, to now allow sign-ups without an invite, if your address is eligible for service, reports Tesla North.
Previously, Starlink website sign-ups for the beta program would be contacted via email to let them know about eligibility. But as of Wednesday, users in Canada and the United States can enter their address on the Starlink website—and if eligible, sign up right away.
All you have to do is visit the Starlink website here, enter your email and your home address. You’ll be able to confirm your exact location with a pin on a map.
After that’s done, you’ll then be notified instantly if you can sign up for the internet beta program. If you are eligible, you’ll be able to place an order right away for the Starlink hardware package, which contains a dish and router.
Tesla North reports Canadians in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta were able to sign up today or received emails to join the Starlink beta. Eligible latitudes seen so far have been in the range of 43.1 to 45.3, and 50.01 to 50.71.
As for Starlink internet pricing in Canada? The dish is priced at $649 CAD, while the service is at $129 CAD per month. Starlink is targeting those in rural areas, lacking high-speed access.
Starlink internet beta invites hit Canada back in September. The low-Earth orbit satellite internet offers lower latency and faster download speeds compared to traditional satellite internet. This is because Starlink internet satellite constellations are hovering 550 km above Earth, whereas conventional satellite internet is at roughly 35,700 km above the globe, resulting in slow speeds with high latency.
On Thursday morning, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched 60 more satellites into orbit, resulting in over 1,000 Starlink satellites in space. SpaceX has plans to launch 12,000 satellites and at its current pace, has a leg up on competitors.
In Canada, the federal government recently inked a $600 million deal with Ottawa-based Telesat for its low-Earth orbit satellite internet. So far? There’s only one Telesat satellite in space, but plans are to send more into orbit in 2021 aboard Amazon-backed Blue Origin rockets. Telesat satellites at 800 kg each, weigh more than three times that of a Starlink satellite, at just 227 kg.
Moreover, Telesat will sell its satellite internet services to internet providers, who will then sell directly to consumers. This is different than Starlink’s direct-to-consumer business model, mirroring Tesla. Time will tell if $600 million of your tax dollars will see Telesat compete with SpaceX’s Starlink internet.
For rural Canadians, Starlink internet will allow for high-speed internet connectivity that’s unheard of, allowing for video conferencing and also streaming 4K video and playing video games. Beta testers have seen download speeds of 150 Mbps or higher.
Were you able to sign up for Starlink internet beta via the website?
Paleontologists finally have their first good look at a dinosaur's butt – CNET
Paleontologists spend their entire academic careers studying the anatomy of dinosaurs. Now a team of scientists from the University of Bristol has finally described in detail a dinosaur’s cloacal or vent, which is used for everything from defecation and urination to attracting a mate to breed with (or, less scientifically, a jack-of-all-trades butthole).
In a new study, published in the journal Current Biology on Tuesday, Scientists revealed a range of theories about the cloacal vent on a dog-sized dinosaur called Psittacosaurus, a relative of Triceratops from the early Cretaceous era, which lived about 120 million years ago.
“I noticed the cloaca several years ago after we had reconstructed the color patterns of this dinosaur using a remarkable fossil on display at the Senckenberg Museum in Germany which clearly preserves its skin and color patterns,” Dr. Jakob Vinther from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences said in a statement on Tuesday.
“It took a long while before we got around to finish it off because no one has ever cared about comparing the exterior of cloacal openings of living animals, so it was largely unchartered territory,” Vinther added.
The researchers reveal the dinosaur’s cloaca has similar features as cloacas on alligators and crocodiles. The dino’s outer cloaca areas were also likely highly pigmented. This pigmentation may have been used to attract a mate, much like baboons use theirs.
“We found the vent does look different in many different groups of tetrapods, but in most cases, it doesn’t tell you much about an animal’s sex.” Dr. Diane Kelly from the University of Massachusetts Amherst said. “Those distinguishing features are tucked inside the cloaca, and unfortunately, they’re not preserved in this fossil.”
It’s not just the appearance of the dino’s vent that got the attention of mates, but also its smell. The large, pigmented lobes on either side of the cloacas could have also included musky scent glands to get the attention of a mate.
“Knowing that at least some dinosaurs were signaling to each other gives palaeo-artists exciting freedom to speculate on a whole variety of now plausible interactions during dinosaur courtship,” palaeo-artist and study artist Robert Nicholls said in a statement.
“It is a game-changer!”
A Habitat at Ceres Could be the Gateway to the Outer Solar System – Universe Today
In the near future, humanity stands a good chance of expanding its presence beyond Earth. This includes establishing infrastructure in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), on the surface of (and in orbit around) the Moon, and on Mars. This presents numerous challenges, as living in space and on other celestial bodies entails all kinds of potential risks and health hazards – not the least of which are radiation and long-term exposure to low gravity.
These issues demand innovative solutions; and over the years, several have been proposed! A good example is Dr. Pekka Janhunen‘s concept for a megasatellite settlement in orbit around Ceres, the largest asteroid in the Main Belt. This settlement would provide artificial gravity for its residents while the local resources would allow for a closed-loop ecosystem to created inside – effectively bringing “terraforming” to a space settlement.
Dr. Janhunen – a theoretical physicist based in Helsinki, Finland – is no stranger to advanced concepts. In addition to being a research manager with the Finnish Meteorological Institute, he is a visiting professor with the University of Tatu and a senior technical advisor to Aurora Propulsion Technologies – where he is overseeing the commercial development of the Electric Solar Wind Sail (E-sail) concept he proposed back in 2006.
The paper that describes his concept recently appeared online and has being submitted for publication to the scientific journal Elsevier. It’s a concept that Dr. Janhunen described to Universe Today as, “[T]erraforming from the user perspective: creating an artificial environment, near Ceres and of Ceres materials, that can scale up to the same and larger population than Earth has today.”
Rotating space habitats are a time-honored proposal and a suggested alternative to (or in conjunction with) habitats on other celestial bodies. The first recorded instance was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s 1903 book, Beyond Planet Earth, where he described a pinwheel station in space that would rotate to provide artificial gravity.
This was followed by Herman Poto?nik’s expanded proposal in The Problem of Space Travel (1929), the Von Braun Wheel (1952), and Gerard K. O’Neill’s revolutionary proposal in The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (1976) that called for a rotating cylinder in space – aka. the O’Neill Cylinder. However, all these concepts were for stations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or at an Earth-Sun Lagrange Point.
As Dr. Janhunen told Universe Today via email, a megasatellite constellation in orbit of Ceres could leverage the local resources to create Earth-like conditions:
“They provide Earth-like 1 g gravity, which is essential for human health, in particular essential for children to grow to healthy adults with fully developed muscles and bones. Ceres has nitrogen for making the habitat atmospheres, and it is large enough to provide almost unlimited resources. At the same time it is also small enough that its gravity is rather low so that lifting material from the surface is cheap.”
According to his study, the megasatellite settlement would consist of spinning habitats attached to a disk-shaped frame through passive magnetic bearings. This would allow for simulated gravity within the habitats, facilitate intra-settlement travel and ensure that population density remains low.
Dr. Janhunen estimates that it could be kept to 500 people per km2 (190 people per mi2), whereas cities like Manhattan and Mumbai have densities of roughly 27,500 and 32,303 people per km2 (or 71,340 and 83,660 people per mi2), respectively. The settlement would initially be furnished with soil 1.5 m (~5 ft) in depth, which could be upgraded to 4 m (~13 ft).
This would allow for greenspaces with gardens and trees that would produce the settlement’s oxygen and scrub the atmosphere of CO2 (as well as additional radiation shielding). Similarly, Ceres is known to have abundant supplies of ammonia salts on its surface (particularly around the bright spots in the Occator crater) that could be imported to the settlement and converted to nitrogen for use as a buffer gas.
Planar and parabolic mirrors located around the frame would direct concentrated sunlight to the habitats, providing illumination and allowing for photosynthesis to occur. While the creation of such a settlement presents many technical challenges and would require a massive commitment in resources, it would actually be easier in many respects that colonizing the Moon or Mars.
“In some aspects easier (no need of planetary landing, no dust-storms, no long night). In all cases the main challenge is probably bootstrapping the industry in a remote place – one needs some robotics and AI, but they are coming to existence now, broadly speaking.”
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of this proposal is the fact that it allows for a space elevator! On Earth, such a structure remains impractical (as well as extremely expensive) because Earth’s gravity (9.8 m/s2, or 1 g) imposes some serious restrictions on space exploration. In short, a rocket must achieve an escape velocity of 11.186 km/s (40,270 km/h; 25,020 mph) to break free of Earth’s gravity.
On Ceres, however, the gravity is a fraction of what it is here on Earth – 0.28 m/s2 (less than 3%), which results in an escape velocity of just 510 meters per second (1.8 km/h; 1.14 mph). Combined with its rapid rotation, a space elevator is totally feasible and would be energetically cheap (compared to transporting them from other locations).
Of course, there’s also the benefit that such a settlement would have for exploring (and colonizing) the outer Solar System. With a large population and infrastructure around Ceres, ships destined for Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond would have a stopover point to refuel and take on supplies. Potential destinations for colonies could include the Galilean Moons, the moons of Saturn, or orbiting habitats in both systems.
This would give humanity access to the abundant resources of these systems and usher in an age of post-scarcity. In the meantime, this Ceres megaconstellation would provide an Earth-like environment for a sizeable population within the Main Asteroid Belt, one that could be upgraded to make room for many more people. As Dr. Janhunen indicated:
“The Ceres megasatellite could scale up to hundreds of billions of people, probably, so it would suffice at least for a few centuries. Discussing future beyond that is hard, but in general, spreading to multiple places is what life generally does. On the other hand, people like to live in an interconnected world whose parts can [all] be accessed by travel.”
At its core, Dr. Janhunen’s concept is a marriage of space construction and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) with some key elements of terraforming thrown in. The end result of this is a design for a scalable settlement that could allow human beings to colonize otherwise uninhabitable parts of the Solar System. When addressing the future of humanity in space, both the challenges and the rewards are clear.
In order to get to the rewards, we need to get mighty creative and be prepared to commit!
Further Reading: arXiv
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