Cape Canaveral, Dec 4 (AP/UNB) — After a two-year chase, a NASA spacecraft arrived Monday at the ancient asteroid Bennu, its first visitor in billions of years.
The robotic explorer Osiris-Rex pulled within 12 miles (19 kilometers) of the diamond-shaped space rock. It will get even closer in the days ahead and go into orbit around Bennu on Dec. 31. No spacecraft has ever orbited such a small cosmic body.
It is the first U.S. attempt to gather asteroid samples for return to Earth, something only Japan has accomplished so far.
Flight controllers applauded and exchanged high-fives once confirmation came through that Osiris-Rex made it to Bennu — exactly one week after NASA landed a spacecraft on Mars.
"Relieved, proud, and anxious to start exploring!" tweeted lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona. "To Bennu and back!"
With Bennu some 76 million miles (122 million kilometers) away, it took seven minutes for word to get from the spacecraft to flight controllers at Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado. The company built the spacecraft there.
Bennu is estimated to be just over 1,600 feet (500 meters) across. Researchers will provide a more precise description at a scientific meeting next Monday in Washington.
About the size of an SUV, the spacecraft will shadow the asteroid for a year, before scooping up some gravel for return to Earth in 2023.
Scientists are eager to study material from a carbon-rich asteroid like dark Bennu, which could hold evidence dating back to the beginning of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. As such, it's an astronomical time capsule.
A Japanese spacecraft, meanwhile, has been hanging out at another near-Earth asteroid since June, also for samples. It is Japan's second asteroid mission. This latest rock is named Ryugu and about double the size of Bennu.
Ryugu's specks should be here by December 2020, but will be far less than Osiris-Rex's promised booty.
Osiris-Rex aims to collect at least 60 grams, or 2 ounces, of dust and gravel. The spacecraft won't land, but rather use a 10-foot (3-meter) mechanical arm in 2020 to momentarily touch down and vacuum up particles. The sample container would break loose and head toward Earth in 2021.
The collection — parachuting down to Utah — would represent the biggest cosmic haul since the Apollo astronauts hand-delivered moon rocks to Earth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
NASA has brought back comet dust and solar wind particles before, but never asteroid samples. Japan managed to return some tiny particles in 2010 from its first asteroid mission , also named Hayabusa.
Both Bennu and Ryugu are considered potentially hazardous asteroids. That means they could smack Earth years from now. At worst, Bennu would carve out a crater during a projected close call 150 years from now.
Contact with Bennu will not significantly change its orbit or make it more dangerous to us, Lauretta stressed.
Scientists contend the more they learn about asteroids, the better equipped Earth will be in heading off a truly catastrophic strike.
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 Monday.
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.
Osiris-Rex is actually a NASA acronym for origins, spectral interpretation, resource identification, security-regolith explorer.
Hong Kong, Nov 30 (AP/UNB) — China's government has ordered a halt to work by a medical team that claimed to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies.
Vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping told state broadcaster CCTV Thursday that his ministry is strongly opposed to the efforts that reportedly produced twin girls born earlier this month. Xu called the team's actions illegal and unacceptable and said an investigation had been ordered.
Researcher He Jiankui claims to have altered the DNA of the twins to try to make them resistant to infection with the AIDS virus. Mainstream scientists have condemned the experiment, and universities and government groups are investigating.
There is no independent confirmation of what He says he did. He has said a second pregnancy may be underway.
A group of leading scientists has declared that it's still too soon to try making permanent changes to DNA that can be inherited by future generations, as a Chinese researcher claims to have done.
The scientists gathered in Hong Kong this week for an international conference on gene editing, the ability to rewrite the code of life to try to correct or prevent diseases.
Although the science holds promise for helping people already born, the scientists said Thursday that it's irresponsible to try it on eggs, sperm or embryos because not enough is known yet about its risks or safety.
The conference was rocked by the Chinese researcher's claim to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies, twin girls he said were born earlier this month.
Hong Kong, Nov 28 (AP/UNB) — A leader of an international conference on gene editing said Wednesday that the work of a Chinese scientist who claims to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies showed a failure of self-regulation among scientists.
Nobel laureate David Baltimore said the work of the scientist who made the claim would "be considered irresponsible" because it did not meet criteria many scientists agreed on several years ago before gene editing could be considered.
Baltimore spoke at an international conference in Hong Kong, where the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui (HEH JEE-ahn-qway) of Shenzhen, made his first public comments since his work was revealed.
He said the twin girls were born this month. He said they were conceived to try to help them resist possible future infection with the AIDS virus.
Baltimore said he didn't think that was medically necessary. He said the case showed "there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community" and said the conference committee would meet and issue a statement on Thursday about the future of the field.
Another prominent American scientist speaking at the conference, Harvard Medical School dean Dr. George Daley, warned against a backlash to He's claim. Daley said it would be unfortunate if a misstep with a first case led scientists and regulators to reject the good that could come from altering DNA to treat or prevent diseases.
He has said his lab used the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR to alter the DNA of human embryos.
There is not yet independent confirmation of his claim, but scientists and regulators have been swift to condemn the experiment as unethical and unscientific.
The National Health Commission has ordered local officials in Guangdong province to investigate He's actions, and his employer, Southern University of Science and Technology, is investigating as well.
The Chinese researcher said he practiced editing mice, monkey and human embryos in the lab for several years and has applied for patents on his methods.
He said he chose embryo gene editing for HIV because these infections are a big problem in China. He sought to disable a gene called CCR5 that forms a protein doorway that allows HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter a cell.
Cape Canaveral, Nov 27 (AP/UNB) — A NASA spacecraft has landed on Mars to explore the planet's interior.
Flight controllers announced that the spacecraft InSight touched down Monday, after a perilous supersonic descent through the red Martian skies. Confirmation came via radio signals that took more than eight minutes to cross the nearly 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) between Mars and Earth.
There was no immediate word on whether the lander was in good working order. NASA satellites around Mars will provide updates.
It is NASA's eighth successful Mars landing since the 1976 Vikings. The thee-legged, one-armed InSight will operate from the same spot for the next two years. It landed less than 400 miles (600 kilometers) from NASA's Curiosity rover, which until Monday was the youngest working robot in town.
A NASA spacecraft is making a perilous supersonic descent through the atmosphere of Mars, following a six-month journey.
Flight controllers announced that the robotic geologist, InSight, entered the Martian atmosphere Monday afternoon. It should take about six minutes for InSight to get to the surface and land, slowed by a parachute and descent engines.
Updates are coming in via radio signals that take more than eight minutes to cross the nearly 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) between Mars and Earth. The news is being relayed by a pair of mini satellites that have been following InSight since their May launch.
It is NASA's ninth attempt to land at Mars since the 1976 Vikings.
NASA last landed on Mars in 2012 with the Curiosity rover.
A NASA spacecraft is just a few hours away from landing on Mars.
The InSight lander is aiming for a Monday afternoon touchdown on what scientists and engineers hope will be a flat plain.
Everyone involved in the $1 billion international mission is understandably nervous. They say they've had trouble sleeping, and their stomachs are churning.
It's risky business to descend through the Martian atmosphere and land, even for the U.S., the only country to pull it off. It would be NASA's eighth landing on Mars.
A NASA spacecraft's six-month journey to Mars is nearing its dramatic grand finale.
The InSight lander aimed for a touchdown Monday afternoon, as anxiety built among those involved in the $1 billion international effort.
InSight's perilous descent through the Martian atmosphere has stomachs churning and nerves stretched to the max. Although an old pro at this, NASA hasn't attempted a landing at Mars for six years.
The robotic geologist — designed to explore Mars' mysterious insides — must go from 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierces the Martian atmosphere, pops out a parachute, fires its descent engines and lands on three legs.
It's aiming for flat red plains, hopefully low on rocks.
Earth's overall success rate at Mars is 40 percent.
Cape Canaveral, Nov 26 (AP/UNB) — With just a day to go, NASA's InSight spacecraft aimed for a bull's-eye touchdown on Mars, zooming in like an arrow with no turning back.
InSight's journey of six months and 300 million miles (482 million kilometers) comes to a precarious grand finale Monday afternoon.
The robotic geologist — designed to explore Mars' insides, surface to core — must go from 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) to zero in six minutes flat as it pierces the Martian atmosphere, pops out a parachute, fires its descent engines and, hopefully, lands on three legs.
It is NASA's first attempt to land on Mars in six years, and all those involved are understandably anxious.
NASA's top science mission official, Thomas Zurbuchen, confided Sunday that his stomach is already churning. The hardest thing is sitting on his hands and doing nothing, he said, except hoping and praying everything goes perfectly for InSight.
"Landing on Mars is one of the hardest single jobs that people have to do in planetary exploration," noted InSight's lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt. "It's such a difficult thing, it's such a dangerous thing that there's always a fairly uncomfortably large chance that something could go wrong."
Earth's success rate at Mars is 40 percent, counting every attempted flyby, orbital flight and landing by the U.S., Russia and other countries dating all the way back to 1960.
But the U.S. has pulled off seven successful Mars landings in the past three decades. With only one failed touchdown, it's an enviable record. No other country has managed to set and operate a spacecraft on the dusty red surface.
InSight could hand NASA its eighth win.
It's shooting for Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian equator that the InSight team hopes is as flat as a parking lot in Kansas with few, if any, rocks. This is no rock-collecting expedition. Instead, the stationary 800-pound (360-kilogram) lander will use its 6-foot (1.8-meter) robotic arm to place a mechanical mole and seismometer on the ground.
The self-hammering mole will burrow 16 feet (5 meters) down to measure the planet's internal heat, while the ultra-high-tech seismometer listens for possible marsquakes. Nothing like this has been attempted before at our smaller next-door neighbor, nearly 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) away.
No experiments have ever been moved robotically from the spacecraft to the actual Martian surface. No lander has dug deeper than several inches, and no seismometer has ever worked on Mars.
By examining the deepest, darkest interior of Mars — still preserved from its earliest days — scientists hope to create 3D images that could reveal how our solar system's rocky planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they turned out so different. One of the big questions is what made Earth so hospitable to life.
Mars once had flowing rivers and lakes; the deltas and lakebeds are now dry, and the planet cold. Venus is a furnace because of its thick, heat-trapping atmosphere. Mercury, closest to the sun, has a surface that's positively baked.
The planetary know-how gained from InSight's $1 billion, two-year operation could even spill over to rocky worlds beyond our solar system, according to Banerdt. The findings on Mars could help explain the type of conditions at these so-called exoplanets "and how they fit into the story that we're trying to figure out for how planets form," he said.
Concentrating on planetary building blocks, InSight has no life-detecting capability. That will be left for future rovers. NASA's Mars 2020 mission, for instance, will collect rocks for eventual return that could hold evidence of ancient life.
Because it's been so long since NASA's last Martian landfall — the Curiosity rover in 2012 — Mars mania is gripping not only the space and science communities, but everyday folks.
Viewing parties are planned coast to coast at museums, planetariums and libraries, as well as in France, where InSight's seismometer was designed and built. The giant NASDAQ screen in New York's Times Square will start broadcasting NASA Television an hour before InSight's scheduled 3 p.m. EST touchdown; so will the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The InSight spacecraft was built near Denver by Lockheed Martin.
But the real action, at least on Earth, will unfold at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to InSight's flight control team. NASA is providing a special 360-degree online broadcast from inside the control center.
Confirmation of touchdown could take minutes — or hours. At the minimum, there's an eight-minute communication lag between Mars and Earth.
A pair of briefcase-size satellites trailing InSight since liftoff in May will try to relay its radio signals to Earth, with a potential lag time of under nine minutes. These experimental CubeSats will fly right past the red planet without stopping. Signals also could travel straight from InSight to radio telescopes in West Virginia and Germany. It will take longer to hear from NASA's Mars orbiters.
Project manager Tom Hoffman said he's trying his best to stay outwardly calm as the hours tick down. Once InSight phones home from the Martian surface, though, he expects to behave much like his three young grandsons did at Thanksgiving dinner, running around like crazy and screaming.
"Just to warn anybody who's sitting near me ... I'm going to unleash my inner 4-year-old on you, so be careful," he said.