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NASA's Asteroid-Sampling Spacecraft Just Made The Closest Pass of Its Target Yet – ScienceAlert

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is getting closer, physically and temporally, to its primary goal. The spacecraft arrived at Bennu at the end of 2018, and for just over a year it’s been studying the asteroid, searching for a suitable sampling site.

To do that, it’s getting closer and closer.

OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. The heart of the mission is the sample it’ll collect from asteroid Bennu. That sample will eventually make its way back to Earth for study.

The OSIRIS-REx team selected a sampling site very carefully. When the spacecraft arrived at asteroid Bennu, NASA found that the surface of the asteroid was more challenging than they thought. Though the surface contains an abundance of the right sized material for the spacecraft’s sampling mechanism, there are plenty of hazards to be avoided.

Eventually, the OSIRIS-REx team came up with a list of four potential sampling sites. They then did more fly-overs of the four, to take an even closer look.

From there, they chose two sampling sites: a primary site and a secondary site. All four of the sites received avian-themed names, and at the end of the process, NASA chose Nightingale as the primary site, and Osprey as the backup site.

(OSIRIS-REx)

Throughout the site selection process, OSIRIS-REx reconned Bennu in three phases: Recon A, B, and C. During each phase, it got progressively closer to the surface, gathering more detail on each site.

Now, in recon phase C, the spacecraft has performed its closest flyover yet. On March 3rd, it flew over Nightingale at an altitude of only 250 meters (820 ft).

The spacecraft’s safe-orbit height is one km (0.6 miles), but for about five hours, OSIRIS-REx left that safety behind. The Nightingale site is in a crater, and it’s about 16 meters (52 feet) wide. During the maneuver, all of the science instruments were aimed at the sampling site.

While all of the science instruments were operating, this flyover is mostly about the spacecraft’s PolyCam imager. PolyCam is a 20.3-cm (8-inch) telescope, and the closer it gets to Bennu, the higher resolution images it acquires.

After the flyover OSIRIS-REx returned to its safe home orbit, but in the opposite direction. Now it’s ready for its next big maneuver, the sampling rehearsal.

There’ll be two sampling rehearsals, and the first one is scheduled for April 15. The spacecraft will make its closest approach then, coming to within 125 meters (410 feet) of Bennu’s surface. But it’s not done there.

At that altitude it’ll perform what’s called the Checkpoint maneuver. It’ll descend even closer to the Nightingale site, and after descending for about 10 minutes, it’ll stop its descent at 50 meters (164 feet) and begin backing away from the asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx will perform two sampling rehearsals. (Lauretta et al 2017)OSIRIS-REx will perform two sampling rehearsals. (Lauretta et al., Space Science Reviews, 2017)

Then in June OSIRIS-REx will perform its second rehearsal. But this time, it’ll get just a little closer, to between 25 to 40 meters (82 to 131 feet) before backing away.

As OSIRIS-REx performs each approach, it’ll be gathering more data on the sampling site. It’ll also be “training” its Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) system. The NFT uses images of Bennu’s surface to guide itself, comparing onboard images with real-time camera input to avoid hazards and nail its sampling operation.

The actual sampling maneuver is scheduled for late August 2020. At that time, OSIRIS-REx will come close enough that its sampling mechanism touches the surface. Then it’ll fire a charge of nitrogen gas to kick-up some regolith, and capture some of it. Then it’ll back away.

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Mission operators won’t be surprised if the spacecraft’s NFT system cancels the sampling attempt. The system has a built-in fail-safe. OSIRIS-REx can perform multiple sampling attempts, so there’s no need to commit to a maneuver that is deemed unsafe by the spacecraft’s automated systems.

If the first attempt at Nightingale doesn’t work, OSIRIS-REx can either try and collect from Nightingale again, or move to the backup site, Osprey.

Eventually, if all goes well, OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth and release the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) into Earth’s atmosphere, where it will deploy a parachute and float down to the surface. It’s expected to land at the Utah Testing and Training Range, where it will be retrieved.

This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.

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Fermenting ferns? Rare dinosaur stomach fossil opens door to ancient world – News Talk 650 CKOM

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Fresh ferns, loaded with spores, lightly dusted with leaves and twigs and perfectly seasoned with locally sourced charcoal.

Sound good? It did to an ankylosaur about 110 million years ago, as evidenced by amazingly complete fossils of what was certainly the tank-like dinosaur’s last meal.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Caleb Brown, a curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology and co-author of a paper published Tuesday on what is one of probably only three fossilized dinosaur stomachs discovered.

“We can start recontructing the life histories and ecologies of these animals.”

The dining dinosaur was first unearthed in 2011 in a northern Alberta Suncor oilsands mine, where many excavators have learned to look for fossils as they dig. When this one turned up, a crew from the Tyrrell followed shortly afterward.

It was an amazingly well-preserved ankylosaur from the early Cretaceous period. Low but large — the species could reach eight metres long and weigh eight tonnes — the fossil took two weeks to remove.

It then took 5 1/2 years for technician Mark Mitchell to clean and prepare it, which is why the species now bears the Latin name markmitchelli. The restored specimen, complete with body armour and outer skin, was remarkable enough for a 2017 National Geographic magazine feature.  

But for paleontologists, the fun was just starting. They began looking at a fossilized structure that co-author Jim Basinger of the University of Saskatchewan described as looking like a “squashed basketball.”

It was in the right place for a stomach and it held gastroliths, small stones dinosaurs used to help digest their food, much as some birds do today.

“There’s a great mess of them and they’re quite distinctive,” said Basinger.

The scientists eventually compiled 16 pieces of evidence that the squashed basketball was, in fact, a stomach.  

“It’s unquestionable,” Basinger said.

There are only two other fossilized stomachs in the world that scientists are this sure about. Neither opens doors to the past the way this one does.

About 80 per cent of this last meal was a particular species of ferns. The fossils are so well preserved their spores identify them.

There are bits of other plants and twigs so immaculate that their growth rings are being used to estimate weather at the time. And there is charcoal from burned woody material.

Brown points out ferns aren’t that nutritious. A beast this size would need digestion capable of getting the most from them.

That means this dinosaur may have fermented its food, much like many animals today.

“All big herbivores today use some form of fermentation,” Brown said. “For this animal, it was almost certainly fermenting those ferns.”

Which raises other interesting questions: How much fermented fern does it take to move an eight-tonne lizard? How much energy might it need? Where might that much fodder be found?

The charcoal provides a clue. It probably came from an ancient forest fire where ferns would have been abundant in the first flush of new growth, much as they are today.

“(The dinosaur) was taking advantage of a charred landscape,” Basinger said. Many modern animals do the same, chowing down on tender, nutritious and low-hanging new growth that follows the flames.

More than just reassembling skeletons, modern paleontology is starting to rebuild ecosystems that haven’t existed for millions and millions of years.

“That’s something we can start playing with,” Brown said. 

The fossils tell individual stories, too.

Basinger said, given the undigested contents of its stomach, this ankylosaur died quickly. It was surrounded by marine fossils, and researchers believe it slipped or fell into a large river, where it drowned and was swept out to sea.

“Whatever happened to the poor dinosaur, it would have happened pretty fast after it had eaten.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2020

— Follow at @row1960 on Twitter

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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Fermenting ferns? Rare dinosaur stomach fossil opens door to ancient world – The Observer

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Fresh ferns, loaded with spores, lightly dusted with leaves and twigs and perfectly seasoned with locally sourced charcoal.

Sound good? It did to an ankylosaur about 110 million years ago, as evidenced by amazingly complete fossils of what was certainly the tank-like dinosaur’s last meal.

article continues below

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Caleb Brown, a curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology and co-author of a paper published Tuesday on what is one of probably only three fossilized dinosaur stomachs discovered.

“We can start recontructing the life histories and ecologies of these animals.”

The dining dinosaur was first unearthed in 2011 in a northern Alberta Suncor oilsands mine, where many excavators have learned to look for fossils as they dig. When this one turned up, a crew from the Tyrrell followed shortly afterward.

It was an amazingly well-preserved ankylosaur from the early Cretaceous period. Low but large — the species could reach eight metres long and weigh eight tonnes — the fossil took two weeks to remove.

It then took 5 1/2 years for technician Mark Mitchell to clean and prepare it, which is why the species now bears the Latin name markmitchelli. The restored specimen, complete with body armour and outer skin, was remarkable enough for a 2017 National Geographic magazine feature.

But for paleontologists, the fun was just starting. They began looking at a fossilized structure that co-author Jim Basinger of the University of Saskatchewan described as looking like a “squashed basketball.”

It was in the right place for a stomach and it held gastroliths, small stones dinosaurs used to help digest their food, much as some birds do today.

“There’s a great mess of them and they’re quite distinctive,” said Basinger.

The scientists eventually compiled 16 pieces of evidence that the squashed basketball was, in fact, a stomach.

“It’s unquestionable,” Basinger said.

There are only two other fossilized stomachs in the world that scientists are this sure about. Neither opens doors to the past the way this one does.

About 80 per cent of this last meal was a particular species of ferns. The fossils are so well preserved their spores identify them.

There are bits of other plants and twigs so immaculate that their growth rings are being used to estimate weather at the time. And there is charcoal from burned woody material.

Brown points out ferns aren’t that nutritious. A beast this size would need digestion capable of getting the most from them.

That means this dinosaur may have fermented its food, much like many animals today.

“All big herbivores today use some form of fermentation,” Brown said. “For this animal, it was almost certainly fermenting those ferns.”

Which raises other interesting questions: How much fermented fern does it take to move an eight-tonne lizard? How much energy might it need? Where might that much fodder be found?

The charcoal provides a clue. It probably came from an ancient forest fire where ferns would have been abundant in the first flush of new growth, much as they are today.

“(The dinosaur) was taking advantage of a charred landscape,” Basinger said. Many modern animals do the same, chowing down on tender, nutritious and low-hanging new growth that follows the flames.

More than just reassembling skeletons, modern paleontology is starting to rebuild ecosystems that haven’t existed for millions and millions of years.

“That’s something we can start playing with,” Brown said.

The fossils tell individual stories, too.

Basinger said, given the undigested contents of its stomach, this ankylosaur died quickly. It was surrounded by marine fossils, and researchers believe it slipped or fell into a large river, where it drowned and was swept out to sea.

“Whatever happened to the poor dinosaur, it would have happened pretty fast after it had eaten.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2020

— Follow at @row1960 on Twitter

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Western Canadian scientists discover what an armoured dinosaur ate for its last meal – Yorkton This Week

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More than 110 million years ago, a lumbering 1,300-kilogram, armour-plated dinosaur ate its last meal, died, and was washed out to sea in what is now northern Alberta. This ancient beast then sank onto its thorny back, churning up mud in the seabed that entombed it—until its fossilized body was discovered in a mine near Fort McMurray in 2011.  

Since then, researchers at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alta., Brandon University (BU), and the University of Saskatchewan (USask) have been working to unlock the extremely well-preserved nodosaur’s many secrets—including what this large armoured dinosaur (a type of ankylosaur) actually ate for its last meal.  

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“The finding of the actual preserved stomach contents from a dinosaur is extraordinarily rare, and this stomach recovered from the mummified nodosaur by the museum team is by far the best-preserved dinosaur stomach ever found to date,” said USask geologist Jim Basinger, a member of the team that analyzed the dinosaur’s stomach contents, a distinct mass about the size of a soccer ball. 

“When people see this stunning fossil and are told that we know what its last meal was because its stomach was so well preserved inside the skeleton, it will almost bring the beast back to life for them, providing a glimpse of how the animal actually carried out its daily activities, where it lived, and what its preferred food was.”  

There has been lots of speculation about what dinosaurs ate, but very little known. In a just-published article in Royal Society Open Science, the team led by Royal Tyrrell Museum palaeontologist Caleb Brown and Brandon University biologist David Greenwood provides detailed and definitive evidence of the diet of large, plant-eating dinosaurs—something that has not been known conclusively for any herbivorous dinosaur until now. 

“This new study changes what we know about the diet of large herbivorous dinosaurs,” said Brown. “Our findings are also remarkable for what they can tell us about the animal’s interaction with its environment, details we don’t usually get just from the dinosaur skeleton.” 

Previous studies had shown evidence of seeds and twigs in the gut, but these studies offered no information as to the kinds of plants that had been eaten. While tooth and jaw shape, plant availability and digestibility have fuelled considerable speculation, the specific plants herbivorous dinosaurs consumed has been largely a mystery. 

So what was the last meal of Borealopelta markmitchelli (which means “northern shield” and recognizes Mark Mitchell, the museum technician who spent more than five years carefully exposing the skin and bones of the dinosaur from the fossilized marine rock)? 

“The last meal of our dinosaur was mostly fern leaves—88 per cent chewed leaf material and seven per cent stems and twigs,” said Greenwood, who is also a USask adjunct professor.  

“When we examined thin sections of the stomach contents under a microscope, we were shocked to see beautifully preserved and concentrated plant material. In marine rocks we almost never see such superb preservation of leaves, including the microscopic, spore-producing sporangia of ferns.” 

Team members Basinger, Greenwood and BU graduate student Jessica Kalyniuk compared the stomach contents with food plants known to be available from the study of fossil leaves from the same period in the region. They found that the dinosaur was a picky eater, choosing to eat particular ferns (leptosporangiate, the largest group of ferns today) over others, and not eating many cycad and conifer leaves common to the Early Cretaceous landscape.  

Specifically, the team identified 48 palynomorphs (microfossils like pollen and spores) including moss or liverwort, 26 clubmosses and ferns, 13 gymnosperms (mostly conifers), and two angiosperms (flowering plants). 

“Also, there is considerable charcoal in the stomach from burnt plant fragments, indicating that the animal was browsing in a recently burned area and was taking advantage of a recent fire and the flush of ferns that frequently emerges on a burned landscape,” said Greenwood. 

“This adaptation to a fire ecology is new information. Like large herbivores alive today such as moose and deer, and elephants in Africa, these nodosaurs by their feeding would have shaped the vegetation on the landscape, possibly maintaining more open areas by their grazing.”  

The team also found gastroliths, or gizzard stones, generally swallowed by animals such as herbivorous dinosaurs and today’s birds such as geese, to aid digestion.  

“We also know that based on how well-preserved both the plant fragments and animal itself are, the animal’s death and burial must have followed shortly after the last meal,” said Brown. “Plants give us a much better idea of season than animals, and they indicate that the last meal and the animal’s death and burial all happened in the late spring to mid-summer.” 

“Taken together, these findings enable us to make inferences about the ecology of the animal, including how selective it was in choosing which plants to eat and how it may have exploited forest fire regrowth. It will also assist in understanding of dinosaur digestion and physiology.” 

Borealopelta markmitchelli, discovered during mining operations at the Suncor Millennium open pit mine north of Fort McMurray, has been on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum since 2017. The main chunk of the stomach mass is on display with the skeleton. 

Other members of the team include museum scientists Donald Henderson and Dennis Braman, and BU research associate and USask alumna Cathy Greenwood.  

Research continues on Borealopelta markmitchelli—the best fossil of a nodosaur ever found—to learn more about its environment and behaviour while it was alive. Kalyniuk is currently expanding her work on fossil plants of this age to better understand the composition of the forests in which it lived. Many of the fossils she will examine are in Basinger’s collections at USask. 

The research was funded by Canada Foundation for Innovation, Research Manitoba, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, National Geographic Society, Royal Tyrrell Museum Cooperating Society, and Suncor Canada, as well as in-kind support from Olympus Canada. 

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