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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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OSIRIS-REx probe spots asteroid hurling chunks

Asteroid Bennu
This view of asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on Jan. 19 was created by combining two images taken by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Other processing techniques were applied, such as cropping and adjusting the brightness and contrast of each image. (NASA / Goddard / Univ. of Arizona / Lockheed Martin)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has spotted something that hasn’t been seen up close on an asteroid before: plumes of particles erupting into space.

The mission’s scientists shared pictures of the plumes as well as the unexpectedly rugged terrain on the asteroid, known as Bennu, today at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. They also published a set of seven papers about their findings in the journal Nature.

“The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, said in a news release. “And the rugged terrain went against all of our predictions. Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started.”

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Watch a Japanese probe blast an asteroid

If there was ever any doubt that Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft was able to get access to samples from an asteroid called Ryugu last month, a video released today should put those doubts to rest.

The black-and-white video clip, shot by the probe’s CAM-H monitoring camera, shows the sampling horn being lowered to the sunlit surface. Hayabusa 2 creeps nearer and nearer to its shadow, and suddenly there’s a spray of debris as the probe fires a bullet made of tantalum and backs away.

“Rocks reaching sizes of several tens of centimeters in diameter were ejected,” the Hayabusa 2 team said today in a science status report. “Many chips of this released debris are flattened plate-shaped and appear to reach quite a high altitude.”

Hayabusa 2’s sampling horn is designed to capture some of that debris. “The potential for sample collection is high,” the team reported.

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Hayabusa 2 probe touches down on asteroid

Hayabusa 2 after touchdown
An image captured just after the Hayabusa 2’s touchdown on asteroid Ryugu shows the H-shaped shadow of the spacecraft and its solar panels. The dark splotch represents material disturbed by the sample collection operation. (JAXA Photo via Twitter)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft successfully touched down today on asteroid Ryugu, more than 200 million miles from Earth, during an operation aimed at blasting away and collecting a sample from the space rock.

The 18-foot-wide spacecraft was programmed to extend a yard-long tube to touch the surface, shoot a bullet made of tantalum into the asteroid and collect the bits of rock and dust thrown up by the impact.

In a series of tweets, the mission management team said telemetry confirmed that the bullet was fired and that the spacecraft was heading back to its stationkeeping position, 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) above the asteroid.

“Based on this, we determined touchdown was successful!” the Hayabusa 2 team tweeted. “A detailed analysis will now be done.”

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