In this week’s Science Saturday, we look at science news ranging from possible signs of life on Venus to wildlife protection.
Scientists detect gas in Venus clouds linked to life on Earth
First, evidence of potential for life on the planet next door! A smelly, flammable gas called “phosphine” has been found on Venus. Here on Earth, phosphine is produced predominantly by anaerobic biological sources. So with this discovery, there’s a chance that there are some living organisms in the clouds of Venus. But scientists say further observations and modeling are needed to explore the origin of the gas in the planet’s atmosphere. The findings are published in the peer-reviewed journal – Nature Astronomy.
Washington bans TikTok downloads from U.S. app stores
Washington has announced a decision to ban TikTok downloads from app stores in the United States. Donald Trump, the U.S. president, is questioning plans by Chinese tech firm, ByteDance, to keep a majority stake in TikTok’s U.S. operations as part of a partnership deal with Oracle. Trump says any agreement to continue operating in U.S. must be “100% as far as national security is concerned.” He has called the popular video-sharing app a security threat, and says he will ban it unless it’s sold by ByteDance.
WWF report: Wildlife populations down by an average of 68 percent over past four decades
The world’s wildlife population is under threat! A new report by the World Wildlife Fund says human activity has wiped out two-thirds of the world’s wildlife since 1970. Latin America and the Caribbean are the world’s worst-affected areas, which have seen an average drop of 94 percent. The report says humans’ over-exploitation of wildlife, grassland conversion and climate change are among the major drivers of this devastating decline. Researchers are calling for changes in production and consumption patterns of food and energy, increased conservation efforts and a global collective effort.
Winners of Breakthrough Prizes announced for 2021
The winners of the 2021 Oscars of Science, also known as Breakthrough Prizes, have been revealed. Eight scientists have been recognized for their achievements in Mathematics, Fundamental Physics and Life Sciences. One of the recipients is David Baker, whose team designed a molecule that potentially inhabits the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The team also successfully synthesized the proteins, which demonstrated a neutralizing antibody, shedding light on a potential new treatment to the disease. The prizes total 21 million U.S. dollars. Due to the global coronavirus pandemic, this year’s ceremony has been postponed until March 2021.
“Science Saturday” is part of CGTN’s science and technology series “Tech It Out.” The segment brings you the latest news about innovations and technological breakthroughs in the past two weeks from across the world.
Watch NASA's Spacecraft Touch Down on a Tiny Asteroid – Futurism
NASA has finally released footage from a truly epic moment: the agency’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touching down on asteroid Bennu’s surface to scoop up a bunch of space rocks.
Years have led up to this moment. Finally, on Tuesday, the spacecraft made its careful approach to go in for a bite. The tiny spacecraft spent two years orbiting Bennu, an asteroid 500 meters across, which was more than 200 million miles away from Earth at the time.
Well, I definitely touched down on Bennu!
Preliminary data show the sampling head touched Bennu’s surface for approximately 6 seconds, within 3 feet (1 meter) of the targeted location. #ToBennuAndBack
— NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) October 21, 2020
Kicking Up Rocks
OSIRIS-REx only touched the surface of the space rock for about six seconds, according to NASA, near the Nightingale crater, a crater about 66 feet across near Bennu’s north pole.
“Bottom line is from analysis of the images that we’ve gotten down so far, is that the sampling event went really well, as good as we could have imagined it would,” principal investigator Dante Lauretta said during a press conference following the touchdown. “And I think the chances that there’s material inside […] have gone way up way up based on the analysis of the images.”
The OSIRIS-REx team chose the site because prior scans showed a variety of rocky surface materials. Scientists also believe the rocks are relatively young at the crater compared to the rest of the asteroid, meaning that a sample could give them the best insights into Bennu’s history.
Immediately following the collection maneuver, the spacecraft burned its boosters to back away and gain a safe distance.
While it was an incredible feat for NASA to pull off, it’s not the first time a space agency has collected samples from an asteroid. The Japanese space agency’s Hayabusa spacecraft became the first to do so in 2010 when it sampled a few micrograms of material from the Itokawa asteroid.
READ MORE: Stunning images show NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft stirring up rocks on an asteroid [The Verge]
More on the mission: For the First Time In Its History, NASA Successfully Collects Sample From Asteroid
Scientists thrilled with first look at asteroid sampler in action – Spaceflight Now
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The first images beamed back to Earth by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft after it briefly landed an asteroid buoyed expectations Wednesday that the probe collected enough samples to meet the mission’s minimum requirement for return to Earth.
But it will take another week for ground teams to get a reasonably precise estimate of how much material OSIRIS-REx captured during its touch and go landing Tuesday on asteroid Bennu, a loosely-assembled clump of carbon-rich rock and dust spanning a third of a mile (about 500 meters) wide.
The diamond-shaped mini-world was the destination for NASA’s $1 billion Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, which aims to become the first U.S. spacecraft to complete a round-trip journey to an asteroid.
Dante Lauretta, the mission’s chief scientist from the University of Arizona, said Wednesday that the spacecraft’s 11-foot-long (3.4-meter) sampling arm appeared to come down on a “relatively large rock” that measured a little more than 8 inches, or 20 centimeters.
“Literally, we crushed it,” Lauretta said. “When the spacecraft made contact, that rock appears to fragment and shatter, which is great news because that means that ingestible material … is probably being created just by the motion of the spacecraft pushing into the surface.”
The spacecraft’s Touch And Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, on the end of the robot arm is about the size of a dinner plate. About one second after touching the asteroid surface, the sampling system discharged a bottle of high-pressure nitrogen gas to help blow rock fragments and dust into a collection chamber, acting like a reverse vacuum cleaner.
A sped-up video sequence released Wednesday showed the sampling mechanism touching down on the asteroid and generating a cloud of debris.
Ground teams at OSIRIS-REx mission control near Denver received confirmation that the spacecraft contacted the asteroid at 6:08 p.m. EDT (2208 GMT) Wednesday, according to NASA.
In real time, the touch and go landing actually happened more than 18 minutes earlier. It took that long for radio signals from OSIRIS-REx to make the one-way trip at the speed of light from Bennu — located some 207 million miles (333 million kilometers) from Earth — back to mission control.
NASA said Wednesday that a preliminary analysis of data from OSIRIS-REx indicated the spacecraft contacted the asteroid at a relative velocity of just 0.2 mph, or 10 centimeters per second, a fraction of a walking pace. The spacecraft was on the asteroid for around six seconds before the probe fired thrusters to back away from Bennu.
The spacecraft’s autonomous navigation software guided OSIRIS-REx to an on-target touchdown, steering clear of nearby boulders and rugged terrain. The spacecraft found Bennu had a more rocky surface than expected, requiring engineers to introduce more precise navigation algorithms to use natural landmarks on the asteroid to help itself maneuver toward the correct landing site.
The target for Tuesday’s touch and go landing — nicknamed “Nightingale” — was just the size of a tennis court. In the end, OSIRIS-REx contacted the asteroid within a meter, or 3.3 feet, of its target, according to Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx’s project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
OSIRIS-REx was relaying low-rate telemetry back to ground controllers as it descended toward Bennu on Tuesday. A few hours later, the spacecraft reestablished a higher-rate data link with Earth and started beaming back images taken during the touch and go, or TAG, maneuver.
Lauretta said much of OSIRIS-REx’s science team was up late Tuesday night to begin analyzing the pictures.
“We were watching the images come down one by one,” Lauretta said.
Finally, well after midnight in Denver, the science team got the picture they were looking for. The craft’s robotic arm appeared to press into the asteroid’s porous surface, and the burst of nitrogen gas launched a cloud of tiny particles off Bennu and into the sampling camera’s field-of-view.
“You can see that particle are flying all over the place,” Lauretta said. “We really did kind of make a mess on the surface of this asteroid, but it’s a good mess. It’s the kind of mess we were hoping for. Lots of material has been mobilized giving us additional confidence that we actually pushed material up into the sampler head.”
Lauretta was in contact with imaging scientists at the University of Arizona in Tucson via a virtual chat app as each new photo arrived on Earth overnight.
“The science team was analyzing them in real-time through the chat feature,” Lauretta said. “As you can imagine, the chat was filled with emojis and wows and all kinds of celebratory remarks.
“The best piece of information we got was that that TAGSAM head looked like it pushed down into the asteroid surface,” he said.
The nitrogen gas bottle was expected to drive rock fragments of up to 2 centimeters — about the size of a U.S. nickel — into OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection chamber. Stainless steel Velcro pads on the outside of the sampling device were also supposed to collect fine-grained dust.
Lauretta said the science team was encouraged by the indications that OSIRIS-REx’s sampling mechanism crushed the rocks when it contacted the asteroid. He said the sampling system performed best in pre-launch testing when it pressed into the ground.
“Everything that we can see from these initial images indicate sampling success,” Lauretta said. “We still have some work to do.”
On Thursday, the spacecraft will move its robot arm into position to allow a camera to take closer images of the sample collection mechanism. Officials hope to see asteroid material inside the sampling device, but Lauretta said there’s no guarantee of getting a clear shot of the sample.
OSIRIS-REx will fire its thrusters Friday to halt its flight away from Bennu after the touch and go landing earlier this week, Burns said.
The next activity will be a sample mass measurement Saturday, when OSIRIS-REx will extend its sampling arm and enter a spin to give ground teams an estimate of how much asteroid material it scooped up from Bennu. The spacecraft performed a similar spin maneuver before the touch and go landing.
“That way we can compare the moment of inertia, which will help us determine how much mass is actually in the sampler head,” said Sandra Freund, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin, which built the spacecraft for NASA.
The minimum amount of asteroid material OSIRIS-REx needs to return to meet mission success criteria is 60 grams, or about 2.1 ounces.
“The best outcome would be that we would collect a massive sample,” said Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx’s deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona, before the sample collection attempt. “We say we have a requirement for 60 grams, or 2 ounces, but we have the capability of collecting up to 2 kilograms. I would love for that capsule to be completely full.”
Lauretta said Wednesday that the sample mass measurement has some uncertainty, and a measurement of 80 grams would give managers some confidence that OSIRIS-REx gathered the required amount of material from Bennu.
“If we see SMM (the sample mass measurement) coming in at 80 grams or higher, we have a 90% confidence of having collected 60 grams of regolith,” Lauretta said. “So that’s a key number that I’m looking for.”
NASA has set Oct. 30 for a key decision point on whether to declare success, or plan for another sampling run at a different site on Bennu.
If NASA is satisfied OSIRIS-REx has the required sample mass, ground controllers will send commands for the TAGSAM arm to place the collection canister inside OSIRIS-REx’s landing capsule. Explosive bolts will sever the TAGSAM head from the craft’s robotic arm, and the capsule’s lid will close over the device for the trip home.
If not, the spacecraft could try another touch and go landing as soon as January to snatch up more asteroid material.
The robot explorer is scheduled to depart the vicinity of Bennu in March, when it can set off on an interplanetary trajectory back to Earth. OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to release its return capsule to parachute to a landing in the Utah desert on Sept. 24, 2023.
After OSIRIS-REx’s return carrier lands back on Earth, a recovery team will transport the craft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists will open the canister inside a pristine sample curation laboratory and begin studying its contents.
Researchers at Johnson’s astromaterials lab also analyze rocks returned from the moon by the Apollo astronauts.
The team that developed and built the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft took extra measures to ensure the asteroid sample will not be contaminated by organic materials from Earth.
Researchers will use optical and electron microscopes, super-computing labs, and synchrotron accelerators — instruments the size of a large room or a building — in their asteroid sample analysis.
Scientific equipment qualified to fly in space have to operate in extreme temperatures, an airless vacuum, and intense radiation, all while functioning on very little power.
Scientists will attempt to determine the chirality, or handedness, of amino acids and other compounds grabbed from Bennu. Molecules associated with life, such as DNA, have a distinctive orientation. In the case of DNA in organisms on Earth, the double helix always twists in a right-handed direction, and the atoms that make up amino acids in biology are almost always left-handed.
The preference for a left or right orientation among the atoms making up biological molecules makes it easier for chemicals to latch together and build more complex structures.
“Bennu is one of over a million known asteroids in our solar system, and these asteroids are relics of that earliest material that formed the planets in the solar system, and they hold the key information to unlocking how the solar system formed, and how it evolved over time,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.
Named for a bird-like ancient Egyptian deity linked with the sun, creation and rebirth, Bennu follows a path around the sun that intersects Earth’s orbit, and the asteroid makes a relatively close approach to Earth once every six years.
That makes Bennu a potentially hazardous asteroid, and it poses a low threat of eventually hitting Earth. There is a 1-in-2,700 chance of Bennu impacting Earth in the late 2100s.
Bennu was discovered in 1999 by a survey with a ground-based telescope searching for near-Earth asteroids. OSIRIS-REx is the first mission to visit Bennu.
Since arriving at Bennu nearly two years ago, OSIRIS-REx has determined the asteroid is shedding material into space. The mission has also found that Bennu — known as a B-type asteroid — is covered in carbon-rich, water-bearing minerals. The organic material may contain carbon in a form often found in biology or in compounds associated with biology, scientists announced Oct. 8.
Data from OSIRIS-REx’s surveys of Bennu show many of the asteroid’s darkest boulders are weaker and more porous than expected. Scientists say most of the boulders on the asteroid are too weak to survive entry into Earth’s atmosphere, so the specimens targeted by OSIRIS-REx could offer a “missing link” because similar rocks are not well represented in meteorite collections.
“Returned samples from Bennu could help us answer some key astrobiology questions, such as how water and organic materials were delivered to Earth, and the role those key ingredients played in the early initiation of life on Earth,” Glaze said.
Another objective of the OSIRIS-REx mission is to characterize the forces pushing on Bennu and gradually changing its orbit. One of the forces is called the Yarkovsky effect, in which thermal emissions from an asteroid can alter its trajectory through the solar system. Solar radiation pressure is another influence on asteroid orbits.
That data will help scientists better predict when asteroids might threaten Earth.
While it is the first U.S. asteroid sample return probe, OSIRIS-REx is not the only spacecraft currently traveling the solar system on a mission to retrieve materials from an asteroid and bring them back to Earth.
Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is on course to bring home samples from asteroid Ryugu on Dec. 6, capping a six-year expedition in space. The mission captured bits of rock from two locations on the half-mile-wide (900-meter) asteroid last year.
Like Bennu, Ryugu is an asteroid rich in carbon and organics.
NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have agreed to share Hayabusa 2 and OSIRIS-REx samples with scientists in each country. JAXA will get about 0.5% of OSIRIS-REx’s samples from Bennu, according to Lauretta.
The Canadian Space Agency will receive 4% of the material from Bennu in exchange for Canada’s contribution of a laser altimeter for OSIRIS-REx, Lauretta said.
Assuming the sample mass measurement Saturday confirms scientists’ suspicions that OSIRIS-REx gathered more than 60 grams of samples from Bennu, the spacecraft’s science mission at Bennu is over, Lauretta said.
“We are then solely focused on the return cruise,” he said. “And quite honestly, the real scientific payoff which this mission is designed to do is that sample return and that sample science, and we’ll be putting our focus and our resources into that.
“We have met, and in most cases, vastly exceeded all the science requirements associated with the remote sensing campaign at Bennu,” Lauretta said Wednesday. “So all we have left to do to deliver on our promise to the agency is get that sample safely back to the Earth, get it into our laboratories, and answer the fundamental questions about the formation of our solar system and why Earth is a habitable world.”
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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.
Trio returns to Earth after 6 months aboard International Space Station – CBC.ca
A trio of space travellers safely returned to Earth on Thursday after a six-month mission on the International Space Station.
The Soyuz MS-16 capsule carrying NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, and Roscosmos’ Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner landed on the steppes of Kazakhstan southeast of the town of Dzhezkazgan at 7:54 a.m. local time Thursday. After a brief medical checkup, the three will be taken by helicopters to Dzhezkazgan from where they will depart home.
The crew smiled as they talked to masked members of the recovery team, and NASA and Roscosmos reported that they were in good condition.
As part of additional precautions due to the coronavirus, the rescue team members meeting the crew were tested for the virus and the number of people involved in the recovery effort was limited.
Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner spent 196 days in orbit since arriving at the station on April 9.
NASA’s Kate Rubins and Roscosmos’ Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov arrived at the orbiting outpost a week ago for a six-month stay.
Before the crew’s departure, Russian cosmonauts were able to temporarily seal the air leak they tried to locate for several months. The small leak has posed no immediate danger to the station’s crew, and Roscosmos engineers have been working on a permanent seal.
In November, Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov are expected to greet NASA’s SpaceX first operational Crew Dragon mission comprising NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi. It follows a successful Demo-2 mission earlier this year.
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