Laurel, Jan 1 (AP/UNB) — A NASA spacecraft has gone into orbit around an ancient asteroid, setting a pair of records.
The Osiris-Rex spacecraft entered orbit Monday around the asteroid Bennu, 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) from Earth. It's the smallest celestial body ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. Bennu is just 1,600 feet (500 meters) across.
The spacecraft's laps are barely a mile (1.6 kilometers) above the asteroid's surface, another record.
Osiris-Rex arrived at Bennu in early December and flew in formation with it until the latest maneuver. The goal is to grab gravel samples in 2020 for return to Earth in 2023.
The New Year's Eve milestone occurred just hours before another NASA explorer, New Horizons, was set to fly past an icy space rock beyond Pluto.
Cape Canaveral, Dec 21 (AP/UNB) — NASA's new Mars lander has placed a quake monitor on the planet's dusty red surface, just a few weeks after its arrival.
Mars InSight 's robotic arm removed the seismometer from the spacecraft deck and set it on the ground Wednesday to monitor Mars quakes.
Project manager Tom Hoffman called the milestone "an awesome Christmas present."
It's the first time a robotic arm has lowered an experiment onto the Martian surface. The ground is slightly tilted, and so flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, still need to make the seismometer level.
The French dome-shaped seismometer is a little over 5 feet (1.6 meters) in front of the stationary lander, about as far as the arm can reach.
Next month, InSight's arm will put a wind cover over the seismometer and set down another experiment. The heat probe, dubbed the mole, will burrow up to 16 feet (5 meters) into Mars to measure internal temperatures.
"Seismometer deployment is as important as landing InSight on Mars," JPL's Bruce Banerdt, lead scientist, said in a statement. It's needed to "complete about three-quarters of our science objectives."
Banerdt plans to open a bottle of Champagne once seismic measurements start rolling in.
InSight landed on Mars on Nov. 26.
Moscow, Dec 21 (Xinhua/UNB) -- A military satellite was successfully launched atop the Proton-M carrier rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome on Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
"On December 21, at 03:20 a.m. Moscow time (0020 GMT), the successful launch of the heavy class Proton-M rocket with a satellite for the Russian Defense Ministry from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan took place," the ministry said in a statement.
All pre-launch procedures and the blastoff proceeded normally, it said.
According to the ministry, the upper stage of the Proton-M rocket, comprising the Briz-M booster and the satellite, separated as scheduled. Putting the spacecraft into the designated orbit will take several hours, it said.
Cape Canaveral, Dec 18 (AP/UNB) — Astronomers have spotted the farthest known object in our solar system — and they've nicknamed the pink cosmic body "Farout."
The International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center announced the discovery Monday.
"Farout" is about 120 astronomical units away — that's 120 times the distance between Earth and the sun, or 11 billion miles. The previous record-holder was the dwarf planet Eris at 96 astronomical units. Pluto, by comparison, is 34 astronomical units away.
The Carnegie Institution's Scott Sheppard said the object is so far away and moving so slowly it will take a few years to determine its orbit. At that distance, it could take more than 1,000 years to orbit the sun.
Sheppard and his team spied the dwarf planet in November using a telescope in Hawaii. Their finding was confirmed by a telescope in Chile.
"I actually uttered "farout" when I first found this object, because I immediately noticed from its slow movement that it must be far out there," Sheppard wrote in an email. "It is the slowest moving object I have ever seen and is really out there."
It is an estimated 310 miles (500 kilometers) across and believed to be round. Its pink shade indicates an ice-rich object. Little else is known.
The discovery came about as the astronomers were searching for the hypothetical Planet X, a massive planet believed by some to be orbiting the sun from vast distances, well beyond Pluto.
Washington, Dec 11 (AP/UNB) — NASA's first look at a tiny asteroid shows the space rock is more moist and studded with boulders than originally thought.
Scientists on Monday released the first morsels of data collected since their spacecraft Osiris-Rex hooked up last week with the asteroid Bennu, which is only about three blocks wide and weighs about 80 million tons (73 million metric tons). Bennu regularly crosses Earth's orbit and will come perilously close in about 150 years.
There's no liquid water on the asteroid, but there's plenty of it in the form of wet clay. Project scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona said the blueish space rock is "a little more rugged of an environment than we expected" with hundreds of 33-foot (10 meter) boulders, instead of just one or two.
There's also a bigger 16--foot (50-meter) boulder on Bennu, which looks like two cones put together with a bulge on its waistline.
"There's evidence of liquid water in Bennu's past," said NASA scientist Amy Simon. "This is great news. This is a surprise."
Scientists think Bennu is a leftover from the beginning of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago when planets tried to form and some failed. Lauretta said it looks like Bennu was once a chunk of a bigger asteroid that probably had water in it.
When Osiris-Rex starts orbiting Bennu in January — no easy feat since its gravity is 100,000 times less than Earth's — it will be the smallest object that a human-made spacecraft has circled.
Scientists will spend a year scouting the space rock for a good location and then in 2020 it will dive close to the surface and a robotic arm will shoot nitrogen puffs into the soil and collect grains of dirt.
Those asteroid bits will be returned to Earth in 2023.
The $800 million Osiris-Rex mission began with a 2016 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its odometer read 1.2 billion miles (2 billion kilometers) as of last week. Both the spacecraft and asteroid's names come from Egyptian mythology. Osiris is the god of the afterlife, while Bennu represents the heron and creation.