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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx grabs rocks from asteroid in historic mission – Al Jazeera English

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A NASA spacecraft touched down on the rugged surface of the Bennu asteroid on Tuesday, grabbing a sample of rocks dating back to the birth of the solar system to bring home.

It was a first for the United States – only Japan has previously secured asteroid samples.

The so-called “Touch-And-Go” manoeuvre was managed by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colorado, where at 6.12pm (22:12 GMT) on Tuesday an announcer said: “Touchdown declared. Sampling is in progress,” and scientists erupted in celebration.

Seconds later, the Lockheed mission operator Estelle Church confirmed the spacecraft had eased away from the space rock after making contact, announcing: “Sample collection is complete and the back-away burn has executed.”

The historic mission was 12 years in the making and rested on a critical 16-second period where the minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft extended its 11-foot (3.35-metre) robotic arm towards a flat patch of gravel near Bennu’s north pole and plucked the sample of rocks – NASA’s first handful of pristine asteroid rocks.

The probe will send back images of the sample collection on Wednesday and throughout the week so scientists can examine how much material was retrieved and determine whether the probe will need to make another collection attempt.

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu was composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on December 2, 2018 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 km) [NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Handout via Reuters]

Scientists want at least 2 ounces (60 grams) and, ideally, closer to 4 pounds (2 kilogrammes) of Bennu’s black, crumbly, carbon-rich material – thought to contain the building blocks of the solar system. The asteroid is located more than 200 million miles (321.9 million kms) from Earth.

NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, likened Bennu to the Rosetta Stone: “Something that’s out there and tells the history of our entire Earth, of the solar system, during the last billions of years.”

‘Exactly perfect’

If a successful collection is confirmed, the spacecraft will begin its journey back towards Earth, arriving in 2023.

“Everything went just exactly perfect,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said on a NASA live feed from Lockheed’s mission support building. “We have overcome the amazing challenges that this asteroid has thrown at us, and the spacecraft appears to have operated flawlessly.”

The robotic arm’s collection device, shaped like an oversized shower head, is designed to release pressurised gas to kick up debris.

The spacecraft launched in 2016 from Kennedy Space Center for the journey to Bennu. It has been in orbit around the asteroid for nearly two years preparing for the Touch and Go manoeuvre.

Bennu, which is more than 4.5 billion years old, was selected as a target because scientists believe it is a small fragment of what was once a much larger space rock that broke off during a collision between two asteroids early on in the history of the solar system.

“Asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide a fossil record of the birth of our solar system,” Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of Planetary Science, told Al Jazeera. “They can provide valuable information about how planets, like our own, came to be.”

Thanks to data collected from orbit, the NASA team has determined two key discoveries: first, that between 5 and 10 percent of Bennu’s mass is water, and second, that its surface is littered with carbon-rich molecules. Atomic-level analysis of samples from Bennu could help scientists better understand what role asteroids played in bringing water to the Earth and seeding it with the prebiotic material that provided the building blocks for life.

Studying that material could also help scientists discover whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system, as well.

“If this kind of chemistry is happening in the early solar system, it probably happened in other solar systems as well,” Lauretta, OSIRIS-Rex’s principal investigator, told Al Jazeera in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s breakthrough. “It helps us assess the likelihood of the origin of life occurring throughout the galaxy and, ultimately, throughout the universe.”

Japan expects samples from its second asteroid mission – in the milligramMEs at most – to land in the Australian desert in December.

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Watch unreal drone footage of Arecibo Observatory's catastrophic collapse – CNET

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The National Science Foundation released stunning video footage Thursday capturing the exact dramatic moment the Arecibo Observatory’s 900-ton platform fell into the 1,000-foot wide dish below. A drone happened to be performing an up-close investigation of the cables that still held the platform above the dish as the cables snapped on Tuesday.

The video of the massive radio telescope shows both the drone footage and the view from a camera in the visitor center that shows the platform falling into the dish just above the jungle floor in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Two massive chunks of the cement towers that the cables were attached to can also be seen falling.

Two of the cables had previously broken, one in August and another in November, destabilizing the telescope.

A drone was inspecting the site atop one of the towers, where one of the previous cable breaks had occurred, when the rest suddenly snapped. 

The NSF had recently decided to decommission the telescope after a second cable broke in November.

“It was a dangerous situation,” John Abruzzo, who is with an engineering consulting firm called Thornton Tomasetti that was contracted by the NSF, told reporters Thursday. “Those cables could have failed at any time.” 

On Tuesday, they did.

The NSF reports that no one was injured in the collapse and that the visitor center sustained only minor damage.

The telescope, which functioned for nearly 60 years, was the backdrop to a dramatic fight scene in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye with Pierce Brosnan. It also appeared in the 1997 Jodie Foster movie Contact. But Arecibo’s true legacy lies in the many scientific discoveries it made possible. It explored pulsars, expanded our knowledge of Mercury, spotted exoplanets and found fast radio bursts.  

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Unfurling China's flag on moon_china.org.cn – China.org.cn

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The China National Space Administration Friday released images showing China’s national flag unfurled from the Chang’e-5 probe on the moon.

Image released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on Dec. 4, 2020 shows China’s national flag unfurled from the Chang’e-5 probe on the moon. The image was taken by a panoramic camera installed on the lander-ascender combination of the probe, before the ascender blasted off from the moon with lunar samples late Thursday. (CNSA/Handout via Xinhua)

The images were taken by a panoramic camera installed on the lander-ascender combination of the probe, before the ascender blasted off from the moon with lunar samples late Thursday.

In one of the images, a robotic arm to collect lunar samples can be seen next to the flag.

On Dec. 15, 2013, color images showed the Chinese flag on the country’s first moon rover Yutu, the first time the five-star red flag had been pictured on an extraterrestrial body.

Unlike the flags in China’s previous lunar missions, the flag on Chang’e-5 was made of real fabric, rather than a spray coating. Chinese engineers and technicians revealed the advanced engineering behind the special flag.

A flag made from traditional fabrics would most likely lose color and disintegrate in the harsh lunar environment of abrasive dust, unfiltered cosmic rays and solar flares.

The flag must also be as light and compact as possible, as the spacecraft has very little room for anything more than scientific equipment.

Last but not least, how to make the flag stay perfect en route to the moon and look good on camera?

The flag team from China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Ltd. chose a scroll design, so the flag unfurls smooth and flat and not wrinkled and drooping.

It took them more than a year to find a new composite material that could stand the harsh environment and be dyed in China’s vivid national colors. After being rolled up, the fabric will not stick together in temperatures ranging from 150 degrees Celsius to 150 degrees below zero. The flag made from the fabric only weighs 12 grams.

Li Yunfeng, director of the flag system, said the flag system used a mechanical structure that has been applied to the unfolding of solar panels on satellites and spacecrafts. The structure also makes the system weighing no more than 1 kg.

At the top is a hollow ball structure to fix the flag. Engineer Huang Min and lathe operator Liao Guangheng were inspired by Gashapon capsule toys in making it so light.

A flag represents the dignity and honor of a country, said Huang and Liao: “We have to make sure it’s spotless and infallible.”

A detonator unfurls the flag. To make sure it unfurled in one second sharp, the team simulated the lunar environment with a massive temperature difference between day and night, and carried out dozens of tests.

Liu Haigang, a veteran milling machine operator, said the parts he was responsible for were the most difficult challenge of his career.

He said he felt so proud when he finally put the finished pieces in the box as it was like looking at a work of art.

“When it lands on the moon, I’ll tell my grandson ‘Grandpa made this’.”

China’s Chang’e-5 probe was launched on Nov. 24, and its lander-ascender combination touched down on the north of the Mons Rumker in Oceanus Procellarum, also known as the Ocean of Storms, on the near side of the moon on Dec. 1.

After the samples were collected and sealed, the ascender of Chang’e-5 took off from the lunar surface late Thursday, and is expected to carry out unmanned rendezvous and docking with the orbiter-returner in lunar orbit, an unprecedented feat.

Chang’e-5 is one of the most complicated and challenging missions in Chinese aerospace history, as well as the world’s first moon-sample mission in more than 40 years. 

<!–enpproperty 769812882020-12-05 11:03:34:0Unfurling China's flag on moonChina,National Flag,Chang’e-5,Moon10077075074NationNationhttp://images.china.cn/site1007/2020-12/05/c272fc6f-4a89-49c3-a1c5-695a4b7facad.jpghttp://images.china.cn/site1007/2020-12/05/c272fc6f-4a89-49c3-a1c5-695a4b7facad.jpghttp://images.china.cn/site1007/2020-12/05/c272fc6f-4a89-49c3-a1c5-695a4b7facad.jpghttp://images.china.cn/site1007/2020-12/05/c272fc6f-4a89-49c3-a1c5-695a4b7facad.jpghttp://www.china.org.cn/china/2020-12/05/content_76981288.htmnull段亚英XinhuaThe China National Space Administration Friday released images showing China’s national flag unfurled from the Chang’e-5 probe on the moon.1/enpproperty–>

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Chinese Chang'e-5 Is Returning From Moon With Rocks, Left A Flag To Celebrate – KCCU

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China’s lunar probe Chang’e-5 is on its way back to Earth after a brief visit to the moon Thursday. The craft collected soil and rock samples over the course of about 19 hours and then left the lunar surface.

The samples are expected to land on Earth around the middle of the month.

Before it left, the spacecraft planted a flag there — making China only the second country to leave its national banner on the moon. China hadn’t deployed one in two previous landings.

Getting a flag to the moon isn’t easy and solar radiation has likely bleached out the ones planted by U.S. astronauts, according to NASA.

For China, its most recent accomplishment has a nostalgic feel, aerospace expert and TV commentator Song Zhongping told China’s Global Times. It has been more than half a century since the NASA Apollo 11 crew walked on the moon.

“Yesterday’s memory is still fresh and clear, when the U.S. astronauts stepped outside their cabins and planted the first flag in human history, an American national flag, on the moon in 1969,” Zhongping said. “But China is about to showcase our own national flag as well, which I believe is a recognition of achievements and breakthroughs that we have made, which will be the most valuable thing.”

The Soviet Union was the first country to leave its mark on the moon, intentionally smashing the Luna 2 probe there in 1959.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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