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Asteroid Day serves as a teachable moment

Today’s 112th anniversary of a close brush with a cosmic catastrophe serves as a teachable moment about the perils and prospects posed by near-Earth asteroids.

Asteroid Day is timed to commemorate a blast from space that occurred over a Siberian forest back on June 30, 1908. The explosion, thought to have been caused by the breakup of an asteroid or comet, wiped out millions of acres of trees — but because the area was so remote, the death toll was minimal.

Because of the Tunguska blast and more recent close calls, such as the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor blast, the threat from above is being taken more seriously. And although a Seattle-area asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources fizzled, experts say the idea of extracting resources from near-Earth asteroids is worth taking seriously as well.

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Headline-grabbing asteroid will totally miss us

An artist’s conception shows asteroids zipping past Earth. (NASA Illustration)

The bad news is that an asteroid of city-killing proportions is heading in our direction, but the good news is that it’ll miss us on the night of June 6 by 3.2 million miles.

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Planetary Resources’ hardware is going, going, gone

Rich Reynolds, an employee of James G. Murphy Auctioneers, keeps an eye on the thermal vacuum chamber in the machine shop at Planetary Resources’ former HQ. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

REDMOND, Wash. — Wanna buy a used thermal vacuum chamber?

If you have a sudden yen to replicate outer-space conditions, it behooves you to check out today’s online-only auction of the hardware left over from Planetary Resources, the Redmond venture that aimed to create a trillion-dollar asteroid mining industry.

But don’t delay: By this evening, everything — from the 10-foot-tall vacuum chamber in the first-floor machine shop, to the dozens of laptops and chairs spread out in the second-floor workspace, to the satellite dish on top of the office building in Redmond — will have gone electronically to the highest bidders.

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ConsenSys sets Planetary Resources’ ideas free

Asteroids game
An Asteroids arcade game from Planetary Resources’ breakroom is among the items to be auctioned off next month. (James G. Murphy Co. Photo)

It’s been a year and a half since the assets of Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining venture headquartered in Redmond, Wash., were acquired by a blockchain venture called ConsenSys. Now we’re finding out what ConsenSys is doing with those assets.

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Asteroid probe carries samples back toward Earth

Asteroid Ryugu
An image from Hayabusa 2’s camera shows the half-mile-wide, diamond-shaped asteroid known as Ryugu receding in the metaphorical rear-view mirror. (JAXA, Chiba Institute of Technology and Collaborators)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft and its science team bid a bittersweet farewell to the asteroid Ryugu, 180 million miles from Earth, and began the months-long return trip to Earth with a precious set of samples.

“This is an emotional moment!” the team tweeted on Nov. 12.

“It’s sad to say goodbye to Ryugu,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda said at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s command center. “Literally it has been at the center of our lives over the past one and a half years.”

The farewell isn’t finished quite yet, however. Over the next few days, Hayabusa 2’s camera will capture pictures of the half-mile-wide asteroid as it recedes into the background of space. Then the probe’s field of view will turn back toward Earth for the return journey.

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Pining for space mining after Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources asteroid mining
An artist’s conception shows Planetary Resources’ Arkyd 300 spacecraft prospecting amid a cluster of asteroids. (Planetary Resources Illustration

It’s been a year since the Redmond, Wash.-based asteroid mining venture known as Planetary Resources was acquired by ConsenSys and pivoted to blockchain projects in space — but the idea of mining space resources still resonates among those who backed the venture.

One big resonance relates to the effort that rose from Planetary Resources’ remains: Last month, ConsenSys Space unveiled its first project, a crowdsourced satellite-tracking campaign called TruSat.

In a notice posted online, Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, said his former company “facilitated a huge forward step in progress in technology, business and mindset — and we’re seeing similar steps forward across the entire space industry.”

Now Lewicki is working on TruSat and other blockchain-based collaboration platforms for space applications. “I believe that decentralizing, democratizing and diversifying space endeavors can be a pivotal next forward step,” he wrote.

Lewicki expanded upon the connection between Planetary Resources and ConsenSys Space last week, during a tutorial for TruSat’s first group of “test pilots.”

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Future mission will look for threatening asteroids

NEOCam telescope
The NEO Surveillance Mission’s space telescope would take advantage of technologies developed for NEOCam, the proposed spacecraft shown in this artist’s conception. (IPAC / Caltech Illustration)

The head of NASA’s science operations says the space agency intends to develop a new space-based infrared telescope to hunt down near-Earth objects — not primarily for science’s sake, but to ensure that potentially threatening space rocks are identified before they hit us.

NASA’s NEO Surveillance Mission will make use of technologies developed for a proposed telescope known as NEOCam, Thomas Zurbuchen, the agency’s associate administrator for science, said today during a meeting of NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C.

NEOCam has long been considered as a candidate science mission under NASA’s Discovery Program. But today, Zurbuchen said the NEO Surveillance Mission would be recast as a planetary defense mission with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory playing the lead development role.

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Spotlight shines on asteroid perils and prospects

DART spacecraft
Artwork shows NASA’s DART spacecraft approaching a binary asteroid. (NASA / JHUAPL Illustration)

Asteroid Day marks a catastrophic cosmic blast that flattened Siberian forests on June 30, 1908 — but the theme for this year’s observance is hope rather than dread.

“It’s a really exciting time for planetary defense,” former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, executive director of the B612 Foundation’s Asteroid Institute, told reporters today during the buildup to the anniversary. And the University of Washington’s DIRAC Institute has a starring role.

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Co-author of extinction study looks ahead

Walter Alvarez and Mark Richards
Geophysicists Walter Alvarez (at left) and Mark Richards (in the background) examine a piece of impact ejecta at the North Dakota fossil site. (Jackson Leibach Photo via University of Kansas)

After days of puzzling over secondhand reports, anyone with an internet connection can now read a research paper about a fossil graveyard in North Dakota that appears to document the day nearly 66 million years ago when an asteroid pushed the dinosaurs and many other species into extinction.

Even scientists who criticized the way the news about the site came out on March 29 acknowledged that the discovery, as described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was astounding.

“I am very much looking forward to the crowd-sourced opinions of everyone,” University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte said in a tweet. “There is a real thrill and a real mystery around this discovery, and it is EXCITING! Let’s see where the evidence leads.”

The study documents fossil evidence for a catastrophic fish kill that did in many other organisms as well. Intermixed with the fossilized remains were tiny beads of glass that had turned to clay. Some of those beads were found embedded in the gills of the fish.

The evidence led the research team, headed by paleontologist Robert DePalma, to conclude that the Cretaceous creatures were washed up onto a sandbar by a giant wave of water. Then they were pelted by hot droplets of molten rock, known as tektites, which were thrown up into the stratosphere by an asteroid impact thousands of miles away.

In the paper, the research team lays out a scenario suggesting that the impact produced a magnitude 10 to 11 earthquake, which sparked a standing wave in the body of water where the fish had lived. Such a wave, known more scientifically as a seiche (pronounced like “saysh”), could have done as much damage as a tsunami within an hour after the asteroid hit. That scenario would leave enough time for the tektites to deliver the coup de grace.

One of the study authors who came up with that scenario is Mark Richards, a geophysicist who left the University of California at Berkeley last July to become the University of Washington’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

Today, Richards said the seiche scenario isn’t the only possibility for explaining what happened in North Dakota during what’s known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene or Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.

“I think that the surge, unless it was some freak coincidence with something else, was likely seismically induced,” Richards told GeekWire. “Now, it could have been from a seiche. Also, for example, you could have had a local landslide that was triggered by seismic waves. We have to be pretty cautious.”

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A killing field from the day the dinosaurs died

Cretaceous inundation
Scientists say a meteor impact 66 million years ago generated a tsunami-like wave in an inland sea that killed and buried fish, mammals, insects and a dinosaur. (Illustration courtesy of Robert DePalma)

First, there was a violent shock. Then, there was the roar of a 30-foot-high wave of water, throwing fish onto a sandbar in what is now North Dakota. Then there was a hail of molten rock, pelting dying fish and soon-to-be-dying land creatures. Then the fires began.

That’s how the doom of the dinosaurs began, nearly 66 million years ago, according to a study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences next week.

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