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Fiction Science Club

Hollywood creates a new kind of killer comet

If a killer asteroid or comet comes our way, don’t expect Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall to try flying to the rescue. And don’t expect doom to arrive in one big dose.

Those are two of the lessons that Hollywood has learned since 1998, when “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” put death from the skies on the big screen. The killer-comet theme returns in “Greenland,” a big-budget movie that’s making its debut on premium video-on-demand this weekend. But the plot twists are dramatically different.

There’s a different look to the movie as well, thanks in part to the research that was done by visual effects supervisor Marc Massicotte.

“The movies of the past have had a large creative influence on the direction we wanted to take, but at the same time, we didn’t want to repeat what had been done,” he told me. “We wanted to update and also be as close [as possible] to what reality as we know it now is.”

Massicotte discussed his vision of doomsday for the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.  And to even out the proportion of science to fiction, I also checked in with Danica Remy, president of the B612 Foundation. Remy’s group focuses on the threats posed by asteroids and comets, as well as strategies to head off such threats — none of which involve Bruce Willis.

“Every movie that talks about this subject is a way to educate the public and raise awareness about the issue,” Remy told me. “The science in the movies may not be correct, but certainly the discussion and the education aspect — you know, the fact that these things do happen — we think is a plus.”

Massicotte was especially taken by the idea that incoming space objects may not hit the ground at all, but instead break apart as they plunge through the atmosphere, setting off a powerful airburst.

That was the case for the Tunguska blast that flattened half a million acres of Siberian forest in 1908, and for the Chelyabinsk meteor that injured hundreds of Russians in 2013.

For Massicotte, the fact that an airburst would look so good on the big screen was a bonus. “You’d have an asteroid that would come in and have an airburst — and in nighttime it would pretty much light up the sky, and light up its whole environment as if we were in total daytime, having beautiful shifting shadows and shadow play on vehicles that were driving at night on the road,” he said.

Several other choices were made with a nod toward scientific findings. For example, the filmmakers went with a killer comet rather than a killer asteroid, because comets are typically harder to track than asteroids. Virtually all of the near-Earth asteroids capable of causing mass extinctions are already being monitored, thanks largely to an effort that started around the time that “Armageddon” made its debut.

Even better, the comet in “Greenland” is an interstellar object, which plays off the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid in 2017. And the filmmakers set up the plot so that the comet broke up as it rounded the sun, turning a single object into thousands of unpredictable pieces.

As Massicotte and his teammates created the visuals for the movie’s latter scenes, they took their cues from the wildfires that were sweeping over Australia while the movie was being made. That explains the reddish sky that gives everything an eerie glow as the world burns.

“Considering the time frame within the film, the time that has passed, the amount of impacts that have hit the Earth and the devastation of ongoing fires from these impacts, we wanted to show how it had started to affect the climate,” Massicotte said.

There are also parallels to yet another real-world crisis, the coronavirus pandemic. The movie’s name, “Greenland,” refers to the location of a huge military shelter that was held over from the Cold War. Who decides which people survive? How do the deciders enforce their will? The failings and sacrifices that come to light in the course of the comet crisis may strike a chord for those concerned about COVID-19.

The script for “Greenland” doesn’t include parts for the brave astronauts who try to subdue the killer comet — which is pretty much how it would be in real life.

Remy said that none of the three generally accepted methods for diverting a potentially hazardous asteroid would involve sending humans. One calls for a kinetic impactor to smash into the asteroid, changing its course just enough to result in a miss. Another would use a “gravity tractor” to tug the asteroid into a slightly different orbit.

“The third one, which we hope we never have to use, is a nuclear standoff,” Remy said, “where you don’t blow it up, like in ‘Armageddon,’ but where you would explode it near the asteroid, and then the explosion will push the asteroid away.”

Scientists still have a lot to learn about comets, asteroids and interstellar objects — and about the best ways to keep our planet safe from cosmic threats — but perhaps the most promising plot development is that scientists are quick learners.

This month, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe delivered fresh samples from a carbon-rich asteroid that’s likely to help scientists figure out how such asteroids are put together. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is carrying an even bigger load of asteroid samples back to Earth. And a future mission known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, will actually try out the kinetic impactor method for diverting an asteroid.

Even Massicotte is fascinated by the real-life science behind big-screen tales of killer asteroids and comets. “It’s all these little aspects that I’m still very curious about and would love to learn more about, obviously,” he told me. “It has shone a light on our little place in the universe — and how we’re not so indestructible.”

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Categories
Universe Today

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe drops off bits of an asteroid

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe zoomed past Earth today and dropped off a capsule containing bits of an asteroid, finishing a six-year round trip.

But the mission is far from over: While Hayabusa 2’s parachute-equipped sample capsule descended to the Australian Outback, its mothership set a new course for an encounter with yet another asteroid in 2031.

Hayabusa 2’s prime objective was to deliver bits of Ryugu, an asteroid that’s currently 7.2 million miles from Earth. Mission controllers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, cheered and laughed when word came that the capsule had survived atmospheric re-entry.

Imagery captured by tracking cameras — and from the International Space Station — showed the capsule streaking like a fireball across the sky as it decelerated from an initial speed of more than 26,000 mph.

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Cosmic Space

OSIRIS-REx probe locks up its asteroid treasure

NASA says its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has safely stored a sample of dust and gravel from an asteroid more than 200 million miles away, a week after it was collected at the climax of a seven-year journey.

The University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million mission, said the sample should amount to much more than the 2 ounces (60 grams) that was considered the minimum for mission success.

When the van-sized spacecraft pushed its sample collection head into the crumbly surface of the asteroid Bennu on Oct. 20, it might have picked up as much as a full load of 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds). But some of the gravel got jammed in the receptacle’s lid, which led to the loss of some of the material.

That leakage forced NASA to hustle up the procedure for securing the sample, culminating in the closure of the sample return capsule on Oct. 28. Scientists got a sense of the size of the sample by checking photos of the sample collection head, but they didn’t have time to use other methods to measure the sample’s mass.

“Even though my heart breaks for the loss of sample, it turned out to be a pretty cool science experiment, and we’re learning a lot,” Lauretta said today during a teleconference.

OSIRIS-REx — which takes its Egyptian-sounding name from the acronym for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer” — was launched in 2016 and took two years to get to Bennu. The probe surveyed the 1,600-foot-wide asteroid during the two years that followed, leading up to last week’s sample collection effort.

If the mission sticks to its schedule, OSIRIS-REx will begin its homeward journey next March, and drop off its sample capsule over the Utah desert during a 2023 flyby.

Scientists hope that studying a pristine sample from Bennu will bring new insights into the origins of the solar system and the chemical building blocks for life on Earth. There’s also a chance they’ll learn more about the resources that could be extracted from near-Earth asteroids, and about the strategies that would work best if threatening space rocks had to be diverted.

OSIRIS-REx is the first NASA mission to bring back samples from an asteroid, but Japan’s Hayabusa mission did something similar a decade ago. A follow-up mission, Hayabusa 2, is due to deliver yet another asteroid sample in December. Comparing such samples should add to the prospects for scientific discoveries.

But wait … there’s more. NASA has two other asteroid missions in the works: The Lucy spacecraft, set for launch next year, will visit a series of asteroids anchored in Jupiter’s orbit. And in 2022, NASA will send the Psyche probe to study a metal-rich asteroid, also named Psyche.

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Cosmic Space

OSIRIS-REx snags more than enough asteroid stuff

The leaders of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu, more than 200 million miles from Earth, say they’ve collected an overflowing amount of rocks and dust to bring back home.

Camera views of the probe’s sample collection head — captured on Oct. 22, two days after the collection maneuver — showed particles slowly escaping into space, through small gaps where rocks have wedged the container’s lid in an open position.

Based on what they’re seeing, scientists have concluded that they captured more than the 2 ounces (60 grams) of material that was considered the minimum requirement for mission success. The best guess is that the probe grabbed as much as 14 ounces (400 grams)

To make sure they maximize the return, team members are working to stash the disk-shaped head in its return capsule as soon as possible.

“The loss of mass is of concern to me,” the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million mission, said today in a news release. For that reason, the mission team decided to forgo a maneuver that would have involved spinning the probe and determining its moment of inertia, in order to get a better estimate of how much extra mass the sample added to the spacecraft.

“We were almost a victim of our own success,” Lauretta said.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said he’s “so excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment.”

“Bennu continues to surprise us with great science and also throwing a few curveballs,”  Zurbuchen said. “And although we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample, it’s not a bad problem to have.”

This week’s sample collection maneuver — known as a touch-and-go, or TAG — served as the climax of a mission that began with the van-sized spacecraft’s launch in 2016. OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu two years ago and conducted a detailed survey, to prepare for the TAG as well as to study the 1,600-foot-wide asteroid’s composition in detail.

OSIRIS-REx carefully smashed its collection head into Bennu’s crumbly surface on Oct. 20. Scientists say the collection head ended up plunging 10 to 20 inches (24 to 48 centimeters) into Bennu’s crust. The head was beneath the surface for a mere six seconds, but that was enough time for a puff of nitrogen gas to blast a flurry of gravel and dirt into OSIRIS-REx’s dust catcher.

If the mission schedule holds true, OSIRIS-REx will fire its thrusters for the return trip next March, and drop off its precious sample capsule over the Utah desert during a flyby in September 2023.

OSIRIS-REx is an Egyptian-sounding acronym that actually stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.”  Bennu was chosen as the mission’s target because it’s rich in the carbon-bearing compounds that are thought to have served as the chemical building blocks for life on Earth.

Scientists hope that studying the sample up close will yield new insights into the origin of the solar system and the workings of astrobiology. The mission is also designed to help scientists figure out what kinds of resources could be extracted from asteroids, and what strategies would work best if a potentially hazardous asteroid ever had to be diverted.

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Cosmic Space

Images show OSIRIS-REx made ‘a good mess’ on asteroid

The first pictures from the OSIRIS-REx probe’s brief touchdown on the asteroid Bennu have boosted scientists’ confidence that they’ll be getting a good sample of out-of-this-world dust and gravel when the spacecraft swings back to Earth.

“We really did kind of make a mess on this asteroid, but it’s a good mess,” the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million NASA mission, said today during a news briefing at which the imagery was released.

The image sequence shows OSIRIS-REx’s arm smashing a foot-wide, circular sample collection head — known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM — down into Bennu’s crumbly surface, more than 200 million miles from Earth. The impact, and a well-timed blast of nitrogen gas, sent bits of material flying into space.

Based on an analysis of the images, the collection head penetrated about an inch (2 centimeters) beneath the surface, shattering a rock in the process. “Literally, we crushed it,” Lauretta said.

The collection head was designed to snare some of the material that was ejected during the touch-and-go. It was in contact with Bennu’s surface for only six seconds, but the probe’s performance during the maneuver was “as good as we could have imagined,” Lauretta said.

That’s good news for OSIRIS-REx’s scientists and engineers, who have been tasked with bringing back at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of material from the asteroid in 2023.

The van-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched in 2016 and arrived at the roughly 1,600-foot-wide asteroid two years ago. The Oct. 20 operation marked the first time NASA tried grabbing a sample of an asteroid for return to Earth. (The Japanese have done it twice in the past 15 years.)

Scientists hope the fresh sample of material from a multibillion-year-old asteroid will bring new insights about the origins of the solar system and the chemical precursors of life.

“Origins” is the first word in the phrase that forms OSIRIS-REx’s Egyptian-sounding acronym: “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.” The mission is also designed to help scientists figure out what kinds of resources could be extracted from asteroids, and what strategies would work best if a potentially hazardous asteroid ever had to be diverted.

In order to gauge the success of the sample collection effort, OSIRIS-REx’s team had to wait for imagery and data to be transmitted overnight. Lauretta said the crucial images were received at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area near Denver at 2 a.m. and assembled into a video showing the full sampling operation.

“I must have watched it about a hundred times,” Lauretta said.

Just after the touch-and-go maneuver, the spacecraft began backing away from the asteroid surface. It’s due to go into a holding pattern at an altitude of about 50 miles (80 kilometers) on Oct. 23.

Although the initial indications look good, scientists aren’t yet certain whether the operation grabbed enough of a sample to satisfy the mission requirements.

In the days ahead, they’ll turn the sampling arm toward the spacecraft and capture imagery of the inside of the sample collection head. They’ll also spin the spacecraft and measure changes in its moment of inertia, to estimate how much extra mass is now being carried.

If scientists determine that less than 60 to 80 grams of material was collected, they could try again at a different site on the asteroid’s surface in January. But if they’re good to go, OSIRIS-REx will start heading back toward Earth next March, and drop off the sample capsule over Utah in 2023.

Lauretta said he hasn’t gotten much rest over the past few days. “Science never sleeps in these kinds of conditions,” he said.

Now he’s ready for a change.

“The only thing I’m looking forward to is maybe being able to sleep well tonight, knowing that we’ve had a job really well done,” he said.

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GeekWire

OSIRIS-REx touches down to grab bits of an asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe reached the climax of its seven-year round trip to deep space today and briefly touched down on a near-Earth asteroid, propelled by thrusters made in the Seattle area.

Scientists and engineers at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area in Colorado received word at 4:12 p.m. MT (3:12 p.m. PT) that the touch-and-go maneuver at asteroid Bennu was successful, sparking cheers and fist-shaking. The maneuver was aimed at collecting samples of dust and gravel on the asteroid’s surface.

Mission team members wore masks and tried to observe social distancing as a COVID-19 safety measure, but some hugged nevertheless.

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” said the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

All 28 of the rocket engines on the van-sized OSIRIS-REx probe were built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and provided to Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft’s main contractor.

“The sample collection portion of the mission requires our engines to perform with extremely high precision, with no room for error,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s CEO and president, Eileen Drake, said in a pre-touchdown news release.

Fred Wilson, the head of business development for space systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne Redmond, said there was “a lot of excitement” at the Seattle-area facility when the crucial maneuver took place.

“These engines that we built roughly six years ago and shipped off … they’re doing their job out there,” Wilson told me after the encounter.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

First Mode gets in on Psyche mission to asteroid

Seattle-based First Mode has been awarded a $1.8 million subcontract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build flight hardware for NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which is due to conduct the first-ever up-close study of a metal-rich asteroid.

Under the terms of the firm, fixed-price contract, First Mode is to deliver a deployable aperture cover that will shield Psyche’s Deep Space Optical Communications system, or DSOC, from contamination and debris during launch. The contract calls for the hardware to be delivered in early 2021.

Psyche is set for launch in 2022, and after a years-long cruise that includes a Mars flyby in 2023, it’s scheduled to arrive at the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt in early 2026.

This won’t be the first visit to an asteroid, but it will be the first visit to an asteroid that’s primarily made of nickel and iron rather than rubble, rock or ice. Scientists say the 140-mile-wide hunk of metal could be the exposed core of a protoplanet that was stripped of its rocky mantle early in the solar system’s history.

In addition to studying the asteroid Psyche, the spacecraft will test laser-based communications with Earth from deep space. The DSOC system’s aperture cover is designed to open early in the mission to kick off the technology demonstration.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

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.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.