Space News: All Things Rocky

By Tyler DeWacht


Greetings, humanoid creatures wearing normal, humanoid clothes, and welcome to Space News, an article that is written by a fellow normal humanoid. While the last article was focused on the outer Solar System, this article will be bringing us from the ice and comets back into the realm of the asteroids and all things rocky.


First though, a recent update: a new dwarf planet has been announced, and it’s the farthest outer Solar System object we’ve yet discovered! With a 40,000-year long orbit far beyond the Kuiper Belt, it’s so faint that we can only see it 1% of the time, even with one of the most powerful telescopes on Earth, the Japan-operated Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea. It has an odd orbit as well, which gives further credence to the Oort Cloud and the idea of Planet Nine’s existence. It was only announced after the previous article came out, but since this new discovery was nicknamed The Goblin and because this is the Halloween issue, we may as well give it some exposure.


After all, it’s the season for all things spooky, and space is no exception. Coming our way (courtesy of gravity) is a spooky space rock in the shape of a skull. It’ll be a bit late to the party, though, arriving closest on November 11. A bit morbid, if you think about it: a skull-shaped asteroid passing by Earth on a day when we honor the fallen. It made a similar encounter with Earth in 2015, right on schedule with Halloween. After this encounter, however, we won’t be seeing it again until 2082, so this is your last chance to say hello to 2015 TB145 before our final farewells.


On the topic of things coming our way, hundreds of asteroids come our way every year, but most never make it through the atmosphere without disintegrating. Occasionally, some larger ones may come, such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa-sized asteroid that recently made a flyby on October 16. If they happen to enter the atmosphere, they can do major damage and cause mass confusion, such as the one responsible for the 2013 Chelyabinsk incident. Then there’s the incredibly rare yet catastrophic asteroids that can cause mass extinction events. We are the most technologically advanced species on Earth, but is there any way we can avoid going the way of the dinosaurs if such a rock were to come our way again?


We have the technology to see it coming from light years away, and a 10+ km asteroid won’t be that hard to spot, so we’ll at least have time to come up with a plan. Can we just blow it up? Maybe, but it would take several Tsar Bombas, and even then it may just do nothing more than split into more asteroids still on a collision course with Earth. It may work as a last resort, but that’s still a lot of damage. We could also try to deflect it by slamming something like a satellite into it, but we haven’t exactly had much practice doing that. Oddly enough, nobody wants to intentionally slam an expensive satellite into an asteroid. Perhaps a space laser would work, but we’d still need to develop that, and there’s no guarantee yet that someone won’t hack into it and weaponize it against Earth. If we can spread out and colonize more planets, then the end of Earth won’t mean the end of humanity, but it would be a devastating loss. If all else fails, we could enter underground bunkers or launch into space and hope for the best. Our prospects aren’t that good at the moment, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that an apocalypse by meteorite probably won’t happen in our lifetime.


We may not be able to deflect or destroy an asteroid yet, but in a historic first, we can now land on them. The ongoing Hayabusa2 mission, headed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), has successfully landed several surface-hopping rovers and a German-French operated Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) on the Ryugu asteroid, the latter of which operated for only 16 hours before the batteries died. That outcome was expected, though; in fact, it was even a bit longer than the MASCOT was expected to last. The gravity of Ryugu (of which the name was derived from the undersea temple in the Japanese folktale Urashima Tarō) is so light and the surface so rocky that the rovers have to hop, or they’ll just jettison themselves out of orbit with the slightest movement. The Hayabusa2 spacecraft itself is expected to land briefly as well so it can do a sample return mission, but this has been delayed until January because there is no stable surface to land on. This technology is going to be used for future missions as well, including a planned sample return/exploration mission on the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.


In the future, Japan is likely to become a strong technological player in space affairs alongside the rising stars China and India. Not to be outdone on the American front, NASA is targeting the asteroid Bennu for a similar mission with OSISIR-REx, except instead of landing, it will use a mechanical arm to snag some material.


Since we’ve done an update on the outer Solar System, why not do an update on Mars as well? It still technically fits within the rocky theme, so may as well. There’s no word yet from the Opportunity rover, but we have a confirmed visual on it, so it hasn’t been buried at least. Mars is entering a windy period that should blow away the dusty solar panels, so this is the best chance it has at waking up once more. Meanwhile, due to a memory bug, the Curiosity rover has had to switch to a backup computer. While the error is being fixed, the backup computer will maintain operations so that the mission isn’t put into jeopardy. Get well soon, Curiosity!


Now we go straight to the midway point between the inner and outer Solar System, the home of many asteroids, the Asteroid Belt. As it turns out, the dwarf planet, Ceres, has been volcanically active for billions of years. Why does it do this, and how is this even possible? Isn’t it too cold out there? For traditional volcanoes, yes, but as it turns out, it isn’t a traditional volcano. Rather than erupting lava, it instead spews melted ice and other stuff, which would make it a cryovolcano. It’s more common than you may think; several cold moons like Jupiter’s Europa and Neptune’s Triton have also displayed this behaviour, but this is the closest we’ve seen such a body undergoing cryovolcanism.


This discovery was made possible thanks to the Dawn spacecraft that has been flying around in the region. It has learned many new things about the asteroid belt, but unfortunately, it too will soon be coming to an end. Its running out of fuel, and it may even die out before this article’s release. Everything must come to an end though, and that includes Space News. There’s only so much news in space one can cover before interesting material runs low, so the next article will also be the last in this series. The next article will bring us back to our home planet. Until next time, keep gazing!

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