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Drawing of Desert Lizard (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

This year’s Inktober-themed Halloween week continues with an orange-black-and-white lizard living in an arid scrubland filled with prickly plants and desert insects. I have been trying to make some drawings with a limited palette of inks and I had the idea for this drawing when looking at a bag of green, orange, and taupe rubber bands in the office supply closet. It is unclear if the bipedal green figure in the background is a nature spirit, a costumed desert inhabitant, or a figment of the imagination. The little adobe mission seems real enough, though. The best part of the drawing is probably the big grasshopper/locust in the corner, which makes me think I need to draw some more bugs!

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The Dart Impactor (gold) being loaded into the faring of the launch vehicle at Vandenberg Launch Facility

Wow! Have you been following NASA’s DART mission? “DART” is one of those Ghastly-Acronyms-which-Spell-out-the-Project (GASP!) which stands for “Double Asteroid Reflection Test”. Scientists are always discouraged that their jaw-dropping projects conducted in outer space can never garner the same level of attention as inane sports and celebrity folderol–so they give missions these names with futile hopes of grasping the popular imagination. Speaking of whipping up attention, you should immediately google “DART” to see Google’s unprecedented graphic/animation (uh, and all of the information and scientific details about this project, of course).

Anyway, the project’s name aside, DART is a smashing success and something which humankind should have been working on since the dawn of the space age. Ever since we finally understood what caused those craters on the moon (which took longer than you might expect) and the Alvarez hypothesis explained what caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, scientists and engineers have realized that humankind needs a proper planetary defense system to protect us from meteors, bolides, comets, space shards, and whatever cosmic flotsam and jetsam has been drifting around out there waiting to wreck us the same way the poor dinosaurs got creamed.

“Grawwwwwr! Why did we spend so much on stock buybacks and so little on basic science?”

Although some previous asteroid and comet exploration missions have edged towards testing the behaviors of space objects subjected to manmade impacts and forces, the DART mission was designed specifically for the purpose of finding out about such things. Back in November of 2021 NASA launched a 610 kilogram impactor spacecraft to crash into Dimorphos (a tiny asteroid which orbits the larger asteroid Didymos). On September 26 (2022) the impactor crashed into Dimorphos as the Italian mini-satellite LICIACube looked on (as did many of our best telescopes).

Here is a NASA schematic which explains the mission (and its hypothesized outcome) far better than I could.

Of course in the grand scheme of things 610 kilograms is not very much mass–although a 610 kilogram (1340 lb) linebacker smashing into you would probably wreck your day–especially if he was running 6.6 kilometers per second (15,000 miles per hour) which was the closing velocity of the projectile and Dimorphos. Indeed, the Hubble and Webb space observatories were both keeping an eye on the collision and the results were pretty explosive.

We will await the exact numbers (scientists speculate that such an impact should release 20-30 gigajoules of energy–approximately equivalent to detonating 6 or 7 tons of TNT). Also, an EU spaceship named Hera is being dispatched to survey the results in 2026 (so more to follow). For now though, I am already breathing easier knowing that someone is finally working on this problem. Now we just need to work on the 8 billion other problems which are affecting Earth and casting a pall over humankind’s glorious future,

Hey remember that Japanese mission to drop adorable little hopping robots onto an asteroid? Wasn’t NASA planning on doing something like that so that the good ol’ US of A could get its hands on some asteroid bits too? Ummm yeah, NASA was planning to drop by near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu and pick up comet bits and they actually did do that…back in October 2020. I guess I got a little too distracted by whatever else was going on in October of 2020 to write about the mission. Sorry… (apparently I did manage to write about some pretty special bats though).

So, to quickly recap, 101955 Bennu is a carbonaceous comet about 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter which orbits the sun in the Apollo group of asteroids (a group of solar-system asteroids which orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mars–see the diagram immediately below). Bennu looks roughly like an old fashioned spinning top–if that top were enormous and made out of garbage from outer space (as stunningly depicted in the never ending movie at the top of this post). Because of its (relative) proximity and strange composition, Bennu was chosen as the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

M is Mars; E is Earth; V is Venus; The Yellow Dot is the Sun; The Green Cloud is the Apollo Asteroids

OSIRIS-REx launched back in 2016 and spent two years flying to Bennu. From 2018 to 2020 the spacecraft made extensive surveys of Bennu in preparation for the October 2020 landing event (when the mothership sent down a lander to take a bite out of the ball of dust and ice). This is where the story gets interesting, since, apparently Bennu is not really one big gray ball, but a big gray ball made of lots and lots of little pieces of rubble. NASA scientists have likened the landing to landing in a ball-pit in one of those 80s/90s theme restaurants with extensive play facilities for children.

The Surface of 101955 Bennu as described by top NASA scientists

As the lander took a sample bite of asteroid it actually began sinking into the gray nodules like a child lost at Chuck E. Cheese’s and the whole mission seemed in danger until the controllers decided enough was enough and blasted right out of there. Apparently this “ball pit incident” also explains why the lander could not quite bite down on its whole load of carbonaceous astro-bits and spewed some of its precious payload back into space before being secured. Don’t worry though, mission controllers confirm there is still plenty more than the minimum required 60 grams of sample asteroid material (some of which consists of mini-pebbles caught in steel velcro-style loops put inside the sample collector for exactly this purpose).

Also, there are pictures of all of this! Thanks NASA!

Now that Bennu has been mapped and sampled, OSIRIS-REx is returning to Earth to drop the precious sample into the Utah desert. After this cosmic layup, the spacecraft will then set course for 99942 Apophis, a space lozenge, approximately the size of the Empire State building, which briefly alarmed the good people of Earth back in 2004 when astronomers estimated it had a 2.4% chance of striking our planet (spoiler: it did not). Apophis is arguably less interesting to science in that it has less of a heterogeneous assortment of stuff than Bennu, but it might be more interesting to the brave cadets of the Space Force (does that still exist?), in that it is more characteristic of the sort of object known to threaten our beautiful blue-green world of delicate lifeforms with selfish genes. Ferrebeekeeper will keep a better eye on these asteroid missions and report about subsequent developments (provided that we don’t face more home-made challenges to our survival like we did in October 2020).

Artist’s concept showing the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu with the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism

Today we have some exciting news from out there in the solar system [checks notes] er, excuse me, I guess I mean “in there” in the solar system, since today’s news concerns from the planet closest to the sun. Yet, even though it is first, Mercury is shockingly unknown compared to the other planets of the solar system. This past Friday (October 1st 2021), the joint ESA/JAXA space mission BepiColombo (which launched back in 2018) finally made it to the innermost world. Since 2018, the transfer module has been slaloming around Earth and Venus in order to make it to Mercury. Indeed, the mission is named after the brilliant Italian astrophysicist who first proposed interplanetary gravity assist maneuvers as a mechanism for altering the velocity and trajectory of interplanetary spacecraft. BepiColombo took the picture at the top of this post, a view of part of Mercury’s northern hemisphere taken at a distance of about 2,420 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the world.

In 2025, the spacecraft will deploy two orbiters to truly comprehensively map Mercury and attempt to unlock the mysteries of the planet’s ancient face. Mercury’s surface seems to be made of a very dark lava which has been bombarded by meteorites for the last several billion years. Although Mercury is dinky in volume (smaller than some of the solar system’s moons) it is quite dense and presumably contains a metallic core suitable for a much larger planet. Interestingly (albeit unsurprisingly, for anyone who lives here) the densest planet in the solar system is Earth!

Not since the end of the Messenger mission has Mercury been the thrilling center of attention in astronomy. I can hardly wait for subsequent discoveries about the fast, hot, tiny planet. Some of the secrets of the making of the solar system have been locked away on the little world, waiting billions of years for the right orbiter to come along.

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What with all of the excitement in the world, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture…and of good things which are still happening during these troubled times.  This morning at 7:50 a.m. EDT, NASA launched an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41.  On board the rocket is a Martian lander containing the most sophisticated Martian rover yet “Perseverance” along with its robotic helicopter sidekick “Ingenuity.”

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Artist’s Conception of Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars

If the mission continues to go according to plan, the lander will reach Mars in February 2021.  Coincidentally, Mars will be crowded that month, since a Chinese orbiter & lander, and a UAE orbiter are also slated to arrive.  After much trial-and-error, I have faith in NASA’s sky crane landing system but it will be most interesting to see if the Chinese rover can “stick the landing”or if it is eaten by the ghosts of Mars (I hope not: humankind needs the Chinese data too, and NASA needs some competition to keep the creative juices and the congressional funding flowing).

The ultimate destination of the Mars 2020 mission is the Jezero Crater, a nearly circular crater 49 km (30 miles) in diameter.  The ancient crater is now partially filled with sediments–including a fan delta of ancient clays.  It is believed that if evidence of ancient life is to be found anywhere on Mars this is as likely a place as any to discover the ancient fossils.

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Jezero Crater

Perseverance  has onboard a 4.8 kilograms (11 lb) pellet of plutonium dioxide which will provide the vehicle (and the miniature helicopter) with abundant energy for traveling, communicating with orbiters/Earth, assaying rocks, and operating a core drill for gathering geological samples of ancient Martian rock.  Additionally the rover will conduct material experiments concerning the potential toxicity of Martian dust and the production of pure oxygen from Martian atmospheric CO2.  Perhaps most excitingly, the rover will also carefully organize and cache the precious samples it gathers in preparation for a future retrieval mission.  Such a mission would involve landing, building and launching a Mars ascent vehicle from the Martian surface up to our proposed next generation Mars orbiter which would then load the samples on am Earthbound craft.  So the Mars 2020 mission is a tremendous step towards discovering whether life ever gained a toehold on Mars AND towards building next-generation space faring capabilities (for the dull and incurious earthcentric crowd that always decries space exploration–as though Earth is located somewhere other than space!– it should be noted that such engineering breakthroughs generally confer military, technological, and economic supremacy here).

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Also, special thanks to our brilliant Norwegian, Spanish, French, and Italian friends!

So best wishes for the entire armada which has left our planet this month headed for Mars, but particular good wishes to Perseverance and Ingenuity!  Let’s hope we can discover some perveverance here to make it all the way to February 2021 (right now that sounds like it might as well be some HG Wells date in the impossible future).

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I have been trying to spruce up my online presence by building some new web pages (more about that soon) and by fixing the site I already have which everybody loves [crickets], um, which is to say Ferrebeekeeper!   Unfortunately trying new things doesn’t always work…so kindly forgive me if yesterday’s post looks a bit peculiar.  We will work with the web guru to get it all taken care of.  In the mean time, speaking of experimenting with new things, let’s check back in on JAXA spaceship Hayabusa2.

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Artist’s conception of Hayabusa2 touching down on Ryugu

When last we checked in with Hayabusa2, the Japanese spaceprobe had entered orbit around Asteroid Ryugu (a carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid, which is believed to be composed of pristine materials left over from the dawn of the solar system).  Hayabusa2 was deploying tiny 1.1 kilograms (2.4 pounds) hopping droids to jump around the ancient ball of rock and snow and learn whatever they could.  These robots would be followed by a larger robot probe, Mascot, which would study the asteroid in depth before Hayabusa2’s glorious showstopping signature move–a descent to the surface in order to fire a projectile into the asteroid (in order to collect an asteroid sample).  That’s right: while Americans have been utterly transfixed by the bloviations of our felonious leader, the Japanese have dispatched a spacefaring robot to drop hopping mechanized lice on a primeval space snowball and then to pop a cap in it!  Respect to the Land of the Rising Sun!

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The probe arrived in perfect condition back in September of 2018, but the next phase of the mission got off to a rocky start…literally!  JAXA expected Ryugu to be covered with fine powder, but it was covered with jagged rocks.  The tiny hopping bots MINERVA-II1 A and B were really meant to test the conditions for MASCOT, a shoebox like robot-probe with real scientific instruments.  On a prior mission these hopping probes were too enthusiastic and, after a single touchdown, they hopped magnificently but suicidally into the infinite void (presumably yelling inaudible robot slogans of honor).  Although conditions on Ryugu were not as expected, the second generation Minervabots did a better job this time: they delivered the necessary telemetry, astrionics, and surface conditions to bring the mission to the next phase.  Mascot was duly dispatched back in October and it operated faultlessly for 17 hours before its battery ran out and the active phase of its mission ended. [As an aside, I am finding it challenging to describe all of the things happening on a planetoid inhabited entirely by various sorts of robots]

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Animation of Mascot probe hopping around Ryugu…such balletic grace!

On February 22nd 2019, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft descended to the surface of the asteroid and physically collected a substantial sample of the regolith by shooting the asteroid with a small projectile.  You can watch the video of the brief encounter here.  There are a lot of pebbles and shards flying around, but apparently the craft was fine and is now back in orbit while the ground crew looks for a final site to sample in April.

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The Surface of Ryugu as imaged by a robot probe (JAXA)

This mission is super exciting, but the precious samples aren’t home yet.  We will keep you updated here on Ferrebeekeeper (and we will keep working on our own tech project of building a better site).

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Congratulations to the Japanese Space Agency!   On Friday morning (EST) the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 dropped two adorable little hopping rover bots (“hoppers”? “hop-overs”? “hop-bots”? um, we’ll work on it…) onto the surface of Asteroid Ryugu. The spacecraft arrived at the near-Earth asteroid back in June when the sort-of-octahedral space rock was passing near to our home planet.  The twin “MinervaII” probes (“Micro Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid”) are 18 centimeter (7 inch) disks which weigh 1.1 kilograms (2.4 pounds) each.  Making use of the asteroid’s exceedingly low gravity, the tiny robots will hop to their location and deliver readings about the composition of the ancient icy rock, which will hopefully provide insight into the formation of the solar system.  Additionally, more stirring action is on the way in October when Hayabusa II will deliver a larger lander (named Mascot!) and then a third Minerva lander.  This flurry of activity is in preparation to collect asteroid material which will be returned to Earth!

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Hopefully….the MinervaII probes are (unsurprisingly) the second in a line of Minerva probes.  The first Minerva hopping robot met an inglorious fate during the first Hayabusa mission to the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.  That (smaller) Minerva rover was deployed a bit early and hopped ignominiously into the void of space.  Sadly I don’t have pictures, but imagine a hockey puck falling into infinite blackness.

I will follow up with more news about this mission as it becomes available, but for now let us celebrate!

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This Friday September 15th is the final day of the astounding Cassini mission. The robotic space probe just took a final picture of Titan (which was arguably the site of the mission’s most breathtaking discoveries) and now the little spacecraft turns towards Saturn’s north pole and the grand finale…a plunge into the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant planet. A joint effort between NASA and the Italian space agency, Cassini launched in 1997 (the year I came to New York) and for 20 years it has sailed the solar system. In 2004, the craft reached Saturn and it has been discovering moons, taking pictures, and otherwise exploring the system ever since. Cassini even launched a lander to the surface of Titan, a super moon with a thick atmosphere and methane oceans.
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All good things must end though, and Cassini is out of fuel. Mission scientists did not wish to leave the craft orbiting for thousands of years and they also hoped to get a last trove of data (and jolt of publicity) from the mission…so the controllers opted to fly Cassini straight into the planet to learn whatever they can before the minivan sized probe blows apart and/or is crushed. Sadly there is no camera to record this melodramatic demise (which the denizens of Earth will want to see) so I have created my own rendition of the craft’s final descent using the magic of art (image at top). Since Saturn does not have an oxidizing atmosphere (probably?) and Cassini does not talk (probably?) I took a few artistic liberties, however I think I got the great hexagonal storm on the gas giant pretty well and I also captured some of the endearing personality of an astonishing robot explorer which will be dearly missed.
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There are more pictures coming in from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter and they are amazing. The plucky space probe has entered an orbital pattern which causes it to swoop from one pole of the gas giant to the other in 2 short hours (that may not sound like a short period…but Jupiter is enormous). As it passes close to the gas giant, Juno has been able to photograph and record hitherto unknown features of the fifth planet from the sun—such as a magnetic field twice as powerful as predicted and intricate and heterogeneous ammonia weather systems.
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Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this new trove of data comes from Jupiter’s previously unexplored poles which are filled with intricate webs of cyclones—each up to 1400 kilometers in diameter. You can see them here on astonishing photos. Scientists are eager to learn more about the storms—and what lies beneath them. The coming months will feature even more beautiful images from the solar system’s grandest planet—and maybe we will get some answers too concerning what is under the clouds and what powers these colossal storms on our breathtaking neighbor.
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