NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Probe Punched an Asteroid in the Name of Science. Here’s What the Mission Could Teach Us

There is absolutely nothing inherently special about the asteroid Bennu. A loosely-packed agglomeration of dust and rock about as big across as the Empire State Building and currently 322 million km (200 million mi.) from Earth as it orbits the sun, it is just one of about a million asteroids that astronomers have identified and catalogued. But on Tuesday, Bennu became the most famous asteroid in the solar system, after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made contact with it for a dramatic six seconds to blast loose and collect a sample.

“I must have watched about a hundred times last night,” said Dante Lauretta, the missions’s principal investigator, during a press conference yesterday, while talking about a video clip recorded by the probe during its harrowing maneuver, seen below. “We really did make a mess on the surface of this asteroid, but it’s a good mess.”

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Asteroids are more than just space debris—they are some of the oldest, most pristine samples known of the early solar system. Studying their elemental composition can yield clues to planetary formation, cosmic chemistry and even the emergence of life on Earth. But first you’ve got to get a sample of them, and that’s where OSIRIS-REx—for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer—comes in.

The SUV-sized OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016, arriving at Bennu two years later. It went into orbit around the asteroid, studying it in search of a smooth spot with loose soil and few boulders, making sample collection both easy and safe. But NASA investigators almost immediately realized they were out of luck—Bennu’s surface is almost nothing but boulders. Mission planners hoped for a target site hundreds of feet across, but they settled on one in a region near the asteroid’s north pole that they dubbed Nightingale Crater, which measures just 8 m (26 ft).

Collecting a sample from so small a spot would require both smart technology and deft flying. OSIRIS-REx has a 3.3 meter long, three-jointed arm, at the end of which is a circular sample collector about 0.3 m across dubbed TAGSAM—for Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism. The flight plan called for the spacecraft to extend its sample arm and then descend from orbit, slowing its speed to just 10 cm/second (0.2 mph) until the TAGSAM assembly made contact with the surface. At that point, nitrogen bottles in the TAGSAM would fire, blasting loose soil and rocks and forcing them into …read more

Source:: Time – Science


UK Plans ‘Challenge Trials,’ Which Will Intentionally Give People COVID-19 to Test Vaccines

On Oct. 20, researchers at the Imperial College of London announced plans for the first human challenge study of COVID-19, which involves deliberately infecting volunteers with the virus that causes the disease, in order to test the effectiveness of vaccines.

The strategy is controversial, as researchers have to weigh the risks of infection against the benefits of learning how well the various vaccine candidates can fight that infection. The strongest argument in favor of the studies has to do with time. If cases of COVID-19 are waning, then the likelihood that people who are vaccinated would get exposed to and potentially infected with the virus naturally declines as well, and it takes researchers longer to accumulate enough data to tell if a vaccine is effective or not. By intentionally exposing people to the virus after they have been vaccinated, researchers can shrink this timeline significantly.

Scientists have used the model to test vaccines against a number of different diseases, including the very first one against smallpox—Edward Jenner infected his son with cowpox, and then exposed his son to smallpox as a way to test his theory that exposure to the former would protect his son from infection by the latter. Scientists tested an H1N1 influenza vaccine by exposing people to the flu, and did the same with a cholera vaccine and the bacterium that causes it. But the strategy requires a solid base of information about both the disease and the vaccine in order to justify the risks. More recently, for example, scientists considered intentionally infecting volunteers with the Zika virus to test vaccines against that disease, but ultimately decided they didn’t have enough data to justify the risk.

Adair Richards, honorary associate professor at the University of Warwick who last May published guidelines on how to ethically conduct human challenge studies, notes that during a pandemic, the risk of delays in developing treatments should be considered alongside the risks to volunteers who are intentionally exposed to disease. “There is a moral weight to inaction as well as action,” he says. “There is an unseen risk if we don’t do [these studies]. We send a lot of doctors, nurses and care workers to work every day, and some will get really sick and die of COVID-19 in the next few weeks. [Those] few weeks count—that’s the unseen risk.”

More than 38,000 people in the U.S. agree, and have registered their …read more

Source:: Time – Science


The Antarctic Ocean Is in Climate Crisis. This Week, the World Could Take a Big Step Towards Protecting Its Future

Sixty years ago a dozen nations, including arch-rivals the United States and the Soviet Union, agreed to preserve the Antarctic continent as a place of peace, research and conservation. Commercial exploitation of its resources and its animals was forbidden. Yet much of the ocean that surrounds the territory does not have the same protections.

This will be up for discussion during a virtual meeting of the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) from 22-30 October. The Convention is meeting to discuss the region’s future and will decide whether or not it’s time to give some of the most biodiverse seas around Antarctica the same defenses as the land itself.

The timing couldn’t be more vital. The combined threats of global climate change and industrial fishing are weakening the crucial ecosystems that lie within its waters. Record high temperatures are breaking up ice sheets that have lasted millennia. On Feb. 6, a weather station on the Antarctic Peninsula—the 1,500 km long finger of land that reaches towards South America—reported a record temperature high of 18.3°C. While members of a nearby scientific expedition researching penguin populations relished in the balmy weather, stripping down to t-shirts and bare chests, it was an ominous sign for a species better adapted to ice. Just a few days earlier the penguin researchers were reporting a 77% decline in some colonies.

The peninsula isn’t just one of the fastest warming places on earth. It’s also home to some of the most exquisitely specialized species on the planet. Among them is Antarctic krill—the tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans that collectively form the largest biomass on the planet and are the cornerstone of the global ocean food chain. Yet the encroachment of industrial fisheries into these waters is threatening their health, as well as the penguins, seals and whales that are sustained by them.

Read More: Why This Year Is Our Last, Best Chance for Saving the Oceans

CCAMLR was established in 1982 with a mandate to protect Antarctic marine life through sustainable fisheries. It governs by consensus, and regulates fishing through quotas. The current quota for krill across the entire fishing fleet is limited to less than .5% of the known biomass. That may not sound like much, but it can still have an outsize impact depending on where the krill is harvested, says Rodolfo Werner, an …read more

Source:: Time – Science


A New Space Pact Seeks to Ensure Peace and Prosperity—on the Moon

Laws have long been portable things. Human beings settled frontiers with tools and muscle—and too often with weapons, seizing lands that belong to others. One other thing the settlers also brought along were their legal systems, rules of the road to govern their behavior in the new communities they built. That was true when all our exploring was terrestrial, and it remained true when we ventured into space. As long ago as 1967—just six years after the first human spaceflight—the U.S. and other signatory nations established the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies—better known simply as the “Outer Space Treaty.” The pact bound partner nations to use space only for peaceful purposes, to forswear claims of sovereignty over any region beyond Earth, to lend aid to astronauts in distress, and more.

Now that old law has a new follow-up. On Oct. 13, NASA announced the completion of what it has called the Artemis Accords, an agreement among eight partner nations to cooperate and collaborate in future explorations of the moon and Mars, especially via participation in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon before the end of 2024. The seven other signatories to the pact include the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and Italy. But the accords are, in a sense, open source, with other countries invited to join if they both agree with the pact’s provisions and contribute to the joint enterprise in some way.

“Both the foreign ministries and the space agencies of the various nations were involved in developing the accords,” says Mike Gold, NASA’s acting administrator for the office of international and interagency relations. “It’s important that we take not just our astronauts to the moon, but our multilateral agreements.”

“Our interest,” adds NASA deputy administrator Jim Morhard, “is to bring everyone we can in under the tent.”

That’s a lot easier to do now than it was back in the Apollo era, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the only powerful space players around and, as mortal enemies, were not exactly inclined to collaborate. In the years since, Russia, the U.S. and more than a dozen other partner nations have come together to build and operate the International Space Station (ISS), …read more

Source:: Time – Science