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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

My mother is an expert at sewing.  When I go home, it is a special treat to visit her store and look at her creative projects.  Textile art has never worked out very well for me and my few early attempts at making things out of fabric always resulted in a mass of tangled thread and ruined cloth. I did once make a pair of colossal pants out of heavy burlap-like poplin for home economics class (I assumed the largest pattern size would be right for me, but these pants would probably have fallen off of Manute Bol), but even those were shoddy at best.  Because of this gaping hole in my creative skills, fabric art has a special appeal for me and sometimes even objects in which I would generally have no interest can be fascinating.  Additionally, my mom is a master who makes one-of-a-kind objects which beautifully meld form, color, and utility.

lizar purse with rose.jpg

Such is the case with this…fabric purse.  I am not really a purse person… yet I couldn’t stop admiring this one because of the amazing Australian fabric which pictures frogs and ants carefully trying to forage without getting too close to the magnificent blue-tongued lizard.  Blue tongue lizards, by the way, are enormous skinks (enormous for skinks–they are still pretty small compared to cement trucks or small dogs) which live in Australia where they forage omnivorously in gardens and impress color aficionados with their dramatic blue tongues.  They are admired and collected as pets because of their mild temper and expressive faces (which somehow combine phlegmatic impassiveness with a gourmand’s interest in the world’s myriad foodstuffs).  All of this is amazingly on display in this had-made purse which my mother designed herself.  It is meant to look like an Australian garden: the lizard is hiding behind a too-small rose, but when you push the flower aside she is revealed in full disaffected glory.

lizard purse 2.jpg

Mom’s store (Market Street Yarn and Crafts in Parkersburg, West Virginia) is filled with gorgeous fabrics, yarns, and sewing tools.  Mom makes beautiful sample to show the patrons the sort of special bespoke objects which a gifted textile artist (seamstress? tailor? knitter? quilter?) can make.  I have greedily carried off quite a few choice pieces over the years (more on that later), but even in metrosexual New York, I have no need of a beautiful lizard handbag, so I merely photographed it so that you can share the amalgamated wonder of herpetology,  Australian gardens, and sewing.

My mother is also a blogger and you can read about her projects and her flocks of domesticated bird (including the famous LG) on her site.

This post isn’t just about compelling handbags, lizard with cerulean tongues, and selling sewing machines.  As our machines and our industrial mastery get better and better, humankind is moving towards a combined economic and spiritual crisis of what to do with our lives (to say nothing of our livelihoods).   I think the sewing shop and all of the beautiful clothes, quilts, and crafts on display there show how we can escape a robot-driven economic collapse and have better more beautiful lives to boot, but that idea is going to have to wait for another day.   In the mean time, enjoy this lizard purse.

The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

Since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn. The robot probe (a joint effort of NASA, ESA, and the Italian space agency) received the most press when it launched a flying saucer lander onto Saturn’s planet-like moon Titan, but it is still out there doing amazing work. Last week, while I was busy writing about Halloween themes, the probe made its closest pass yet to Saturn’s ice moon, Enceladus. Enceladus is only 500 kilometers in diameter and it is coated in ice, but it is of great interest to scientists because ice plumes venting from the moon’s south pole seem to indicate a large polar subsurface ocean of liquid water. Warmed above freezing by tidal flux, this ocean beneath the ice probably has a thickness of around 10 km.

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

On October 30th, Cassini flew by the icy moon at the dangerously close distance of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). The probe was directly above the south pole of Enceladus and it collected a little flake of ice to analyze (which strikes me as incredibly amazing and beautiful). It will take some time for the ship’s devices to assay the drop of water from an alien ocean, but Cassini also snapped some photos which we already have. These are taken from point blank range above the south pole. The ocean is down there beneath the scratches and scars. What is the nature of this icy ocean? How long has it been there? Could it possibly harbor life?

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