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OSIRIS-REx Captures a Picture of Jupiter from L4

Jupiter imaged by OSIRIS-REx on Feb. 12, 2017. The visible moons are Callisto, Io, and Ganymede. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx may be designed to study asteroids close up but recently it’s captured a view of something farther away and much, much larger: the giant planet Jupiter and three of its largest moons at a distance of over 400 million miles!

The image was taken on Feb. 12, 2017, when the spacecraft was 76 million miles (122 million km) away from Earth—near the Earth-Sun L4 point—and 418 million miles (673 million km) from Jupiter. It’s a combination of two images taken with the PolyCam instrument, OSIRIS-REx’s longest range camera, which will capture images of the asteroid Bennu from a distance of over a million miles.

Read the full article here: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Takes Closer Image of Jupiter

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Chelyabinsk: a Blast From the Not-Too-Distant Past (or, How’s That Space Program Coming Along?)

Dashcam video of the Chelyabinsk meteor exploding on Feb. 15, 2013 (Source: RT.com)

Dashcam video of the Chelyabinsk meteor exploding on Feb. 15, 2013 (Source: RT.com)

Four years ago today an explosion shattered the morning sky over the Chelyabinsk region in southwestern Russia, the result of a 60-foot-wide fragment of an asteroid entering Earth’s atmosphere at over 40,000 mph and brilliantly blowing itself to smithereens at 97,000 feet up. Even at that altitude, the resulting flash of light and air blast was powerful enough to cause extensive damage on the ground, shattering windows, knocking in doors, and causing injury to nearly 1,500 people across towns in the area—several of them seriously.

This was the largest observed meteor since the famous 1908 Tunguska event, but thanks to the prevalence today of dashboard and CCTV cameras in Russia this one was well-recorded. (I remember seeing the videos online within an hour after it happened!) The footage has allowed scientists to not only determine the energy of the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion—about 500 kilotons—but also the object’s trajectory and origin.

Watch a video below of footage captured from various locations of the Chelyabinsk meteor:

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An Asteroid Approaches Your Planet: Roll a d10

Animation of radar images of asteroid 2017 BQ6 acquired on Feb. 6-7, 2017. Credit: ASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR. Animation by J. Major.

Animation of radar images of asteroid 2017 BQ6 acquired on Feb. 6-7, 2017. Credit: ASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR. Animation by J. Major.

It sounds like a surprise challenge posed by the “Dungeon Master” in a game of Dungeons & Dragons but this is sort of what happened on a cosmic scale on Feb. 6, 2017, when the 200-meter (656-foot) -wide asteroid 2017 BQ6 passed by Earth. Using the radar imaging capabilities of the giant 70-meter antenna at NASA’s DSN facility in Goldstone, CA, scientists got a good look at the object as it passed—and it does seem to resemble a tumbling gaming die!

“The radar images show relatively sharp corners, flat regions, concavities, and small bright spots that may be boulders,” said Lance Benner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who leads the agency’s asteroid radar research program. “Asteroid 2017 BQ6 reminds me of the dice used when playing Dungeons and Dragons. It is certainly more angular than most near-Earth asteroids imaged by radar.”

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Will Search for Asteroids Caught In Earth’s Orbit

In mid-February OSIRIS-REx will pass by the Earth-Sun L4 region, giving it an opportunity to search for asteroids. (University of Arizona)

Launched on Sept. 8, 2016, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is heading out into the main asteroid belt beyond the orbit of Mars to meet up with the 1,600-foot-wide asteroid Bennu. Ultimately OSIRIS-REx will map and collect a sample of Bennu’s surface, returning it to Earth in 2023. But while it’s still traveling through near-Earth space in preparation for a gravity-assist flyby this September, mission scientists will take advantage of OSIRIS-REx’s position near L4 to look for any captured “Trojan” asteroids.

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SOFIA Observations of Ceres Show You Can’t Judge an Asteroid by Its Cover(ing)

Animated sequence of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft showing northern terrain on the sunlit side of Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Animated sequence of Ceres from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The dwarf planet Ceres, at 587 miles wide the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, has a different surface composition than previously thought—and it took NASA and DLR’s Boeing 747-based SOFIA observatory to make the distinction. By observing Ceres in mid-infrared, only possible from high altitudes above infrared-absorbing water vapor, SOFIA found that Ceres is covered in silicates—pyroxenes—that likely came from impacts, the result of infalling material from elsewhere in the asteroid belt…the “dust” of asteroid collisions.

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Could This Asteroid Hit Earth? Astronomers Go “Back in Time” to Find the Answer

Potentially hazardous asteroid 2016 WJ1 was discovered in Oct. 2016—but also in July 2003. Credit: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

Astronomers are always watching the skies for observations of near-Earth asteroids—”space rocks” that have orbits close to Earth’s and, in the case of potentially hazardous asteroids (aka PHAs), those whose orbits could actually cross Earth’s and are larger than 150 meters (500 ft) across. When a new one of these is discovered—no small feat considering that many are very dark, move quickly, and could really be anywhere in the sky—it’s a scramble to determine the object’s orbital parameters and figure out just how close it can get to us and when. Such was the case on Oct. 19, 2016, when the asteroid 2016 WJ1 was identified with the Catalina Sky Survey. This object, estimated to be anywhere from 110 to 340 meters across—easily within the potentially hazardous range—was initially calculated to pose a threat in 2065 with a possible impact risk, albeit a very small one. Eventually though, scientists were able to refine the risk chance with more observations of 2016 WJ1…observations that had actually occurred over 13 years earlier.

Read the full story from ESA here: Asteroid sleuths go back to the future

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