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So No New Earth Trojans, But OSIRIS-REx’s MapCam Surpassed Expectations

Asteroid 12 Victoria, imaged by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Feb. 11. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

Remember when I mentioned that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was going to be scanning for “Trojan” asteroids at Earth-Sun L4? Well the results are in and survey says: no new Trojans (besides 2010 TK7, which we already knew about.) But the search wasn’t in vain—it gave mission scientists a chance put the spacecraft’s OCAMS instruments to the test and they passed with flying colors.

In fact the MapCam camera did so well it was able to image 17 main belt asteroids from L4, some two full magnitudes dimmer than expected.

“The Earth-Trojan Asteroid Search was a significant success for the OSIRIS-REx mission,” said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “In this first practical exercise of the mission’s science operations, the mission team learned so much about this spacecraft’s capabilities and flight operations that we are now ahead of the game for when we get to Bennu.”

Read the full story on the OSIRIS-REx site here: OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Search Tests Instruments, Science Team

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What Is Space?

Two of my favorite comic characters contemplating the vastness of the Universe. Forever thanks to Mr. Watterson.

This is a blog post I wrote in March of 2008—a year before there was even Lights in the Dark! I’m sharing it again because it’s fun…I hope you think so too.

We’ve all seen the grade-school models of the solar system. Maybe you made one in science class. Out of painted styrofoam balls or colored construction paper. Maybe you saw one of those giant models hanging from the ceiling of your local science museum. Big colorful globes, some with rings around them, some painted swirly colors, others looking more like pitted rocks. For most people, that’s their impression of the solar system. Yellow sun in the middle, then all the different colored balls swooping around it. Some people even remember all the names from third-grade science class. Maybe even in order. (My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies?) If so, scratch-n-sniff stickers all around. Yum, root beer!

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This Blazing Quasar Got Wave Motion Gunned Clear Out Of Its Galaxy

Hubble image of quasar 3C 186 racing out of from its host galaxy, 8 billion light-years away from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Chiaberge (STScI and JHU).

Astronomers still have yet to directly capture an image of a black hole—they’re working on it—but they know where some of the largest ones are: inside the hearts of galaxies, where they power brilliant and powerful quasars whose light can be seen across the Universe. Some of these supermassive black holes (SMBs) can contain the mass of millions if not billions of Sun-sized stars and, when two galaxies happen to collide (which they often do) their respective resident SMBs can end up locked in an orbital embrace. As their spinning dance grows tighter and tighter they send out gravitational waves, rippling the very fabric of space and time itself (the LIGO experiment announced the first detection of these waves in 2016.) But if the gravitational waves are uneven, say because the two merging SMBs are of vastly different masses and/or individually spinning in different orientations (a possible but not common scenario) then the super-duper-supermassive black hole that results from the merger can end up getting one serious cosmic-scale kick after the event occurs and the waves shut off—perhaps a strong enough kick to send it hurtling out of the galaxy altogether.

That’s what astronomers think we’re witnessing here in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope.

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Rolling Boulders on a Comet

A 100-foot-wide boulder on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G (ESA/Rosetta/MPS)

See that big rock there? (It’s easy because there’s a big yellow arrow pointing to it.) That’s a 100-foot/30-meter wide boulder that was imaged sitting on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by ESA’s Rosetta on May 2, 2015. Nine months later Rosetta captured another image of the same area in which that huge stone had clearly moved—find out below just how far!

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2017 NASA Transition Act Includes Plans to Preserve Apollo Sites

Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan saluting the U.S. flag on the Moon, Dec. 11, 1972. (NASA)

From July 1969 to December 1972, 12 American astronauts landed in six different locations on the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Apollo program, leaving their footprints and taking samples and data that are still being used today to learn about the Moon. The Apollo landing sites remain exactly as they were left over four decades ago—footprints, rover tracks, discarded equipment and all—and with a new generation of space explorers around the world setting their sights on the Moon it’s important that we make sure these six off-world locations are preserved, just as would be done with any historic artifact.

“President Donald Trump on Tuesday, March 21 signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which includes a section [Sec. 831] directing the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) [a position yet to be filled] to assess the issues that relate to “protecting and preserving historically important Apollo program lunar landing sites and Apollo program artifacts residing on the lunar surface, including those pertaining to Apollo 11 and Apollo 17,” the first and last missions to land astronauts on the [M]oon.” (via CollectSpace)

While this is only a plan for an assessment to take place, it’s a(nother) first step in making sure our first footprints on another world aren’t lost to careless or malicious future lunar visitors, whether human or robotic.

You can find the full text of the bill here.

Read the full story on CollectSpace: White House to look at how best to ‘protect and preserve’ Apollo moon landing sites

NASA Looks to Partner with Russia on Venus Exploration

The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute (IKI) Venera-D mission concept includes a Venus orbiter that would operate for up to three years, and a lander designed to survive the incredibly harsh conditions a spacecraft would encounter on Venus’ surface for a few hours. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In its long history of space exploration the United States has never had a robotic mission sent to the surface of Venus. Flybys, orbiting spacecraft, and atmospheric probes yes, but to date nothing from NASA has operated on the extreme, hellish surface of the second rock from the Sun. Russia, on the other hand, has successfully landed on Venus ten times, eight with its Venera program and the ninth and tenth in 1984–85 with the Vega 1 and 2 missions. Because of its long-running expertise, the U.S. is looking to partner with Russia on a brand-new Venera mission, Venera-D, which in 2025 would send an orbiter, a lander, and possibly even an inflatable airship to Venus to explore its exotic and overheated environments.

“While Venus is known as our ‘sister planet,’ we have much to learn, including whether it may have once had oceans and harbored life,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of Planetary Science. “By understanding the processes at work at Venus and Mars, we will have a more complete picture about how terrestrial planets evolve over time and obtain insight into the Earth’s past, present and future.”

Read the full story from NASA here: NASA Studying Shared Venus Science Objectives with Russian Space Research Institute

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