Millions of asteroids in our solar system are cosmic rocks traveling through space, carrying traces of our universe’s past – and the potential to destroy our future. In 2023, astronomers have made significant strides in studying these elusive objects. Two […]
Millions of asteroids in our solar system are cosmic rocks traveling through space, carrying traces of our universe’s past – and the potential to destroy our future.
In 2023, astronomers have made significant strides in studying these elusive objects. Two ambitious, multi-year missions to collect samples from asteroids in space have been successful and have revealed the intermingling of building blocks of life with these cosmic fragments.
Furthermore, NASA has continued to study the terrifying consequences of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – the first human attempt to deflect a potentially hazardous asteroid – while astronomers have warned that the next killer asteroid may be hiding in a solar flare.
“The Seeds of Life” on Ryugu
In several studies published in February and March, scientists have announced long-awaited analyses of dust from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. The first study revealed the presence of molecules essential for all known life, including 15 amino acids – the building blocks of proteins.
The second study added the detection of uracil, one of the four RNA nucleobases, a molecule involved in protein synthesis, present in all living organisms.
The Japanese spacecraft “Hayabusa2” collected a sample from the asteroid Ryugu in 2018 before bringing it back to Earth in 2020. This year’s analysis has dispelled any doubts that many building blocks of life are present in space – and may even be delivered to young planets through asteroid impacts.
Due to these remarkable findings, the study’s author, Yasuhiro Oba, an astrochemist from Hokkaido University in Japan, said, “It is difficult to exclude the possibility that some forms of life exist in extraterrestrial environments.”
OSIRIS-REx brings “Unknown Material”
To ensure that Japan doesn’t claim all the fame in extraterrestrial exploration, NASA has carried out its own seven-year mission, OSIRIS-REx, to collect a sample from the asteroid Bennu – one of the most hazardous known asteroids in the solar system. The mission successfully dropped its sample capsule in the Utah desert on September 24th.
Scientists have analyzed the powdery black material within a few weeks, sending smaller amounts of the sample to laboratories worldwide. Preliminary analysis has shown that Bennu is not only rich in water and organic molecules essential for life on Earth but also contains unknown material yet to be identified. Stay tuned for further updates on this story in the coming year.
Hidden “Planet Killers” Await Us
Last year, astronomers discovered a “planet killer” asteroid, 1.6 kilometers wide, in a solar flare that had apparently evaded detection for decades. While this asteroid poses no threat to Earth for at least 1,000 years, its sudden discovery raises the question: Are there more potentially deadly asteroids that we don’t see?
Astronomers say that there are definitely more giant asteroids hidden in solar flares, as well as countless smaller ones that could cause significant regional damage if they sneak into Earth’s orbit. Detecting asteroids close to the Sun requires special infrared space telescopes, which both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are planning to introduce in the next decade.
DART did the Job – and Caused Massive Chaos
When NASA intentionally crashed its spacecraft, DART, into the binary asteroid Dimorphos in September 2022, scientists expected it to change the orbit of that space rock around its partner asteroid for at least 72 seconds. In the end, the impact altered Dimorphos’ orbit by an enormous 33 minutes.
This significant change is due to the force of the spacecraft impact and the massive jet of debris from Dimorphos after the collision. This tremendous outflow, along with the “shower of rocks” from the asteroid’s surface, was captured in detail by the Hubble Telescope.
This chaos is a good thing; it demonstrates that the mission was successful in changing the trajectory of the target asteroid, confirming the “kinetic impact” method for asteroid deflection.
It’s good to know if a rock like Dimorphos ever poses a secure threat. Fortunately, no known asteroids pose such a threat for at least 100 years.
When in Doubt, Throw a Nuclear Bomb
Although DART was more successful than expected, truly saving Earth from an asteroid could be much more challenging than the mission suggests. At a planetary defense conference, scientists were tasked with deflecting a hypothetical asteroid three times larger than Dimorphos.
Simulations showed that redirecting such a large rock would require launching 39 to 85 rockets with kinetic impactors simultaneously – a “completely impractical” solution, according to aerospace engineer Brent Barbee.
According to simulations, a better solution would be to detonate a nuclear explosive near the asteroid. Such an explosion would instantly vaporize the outer layer of the asteroid, creating a massive jet of debris capable of moving the asteroid off its collision course.
However, in any case – kinetic impacts or nuclear bombs – scientists would likely need at least five years of planning to get the job done, so the sooner we detect potentially dangerous asteroids, the better.
In November, the spacecraft “Lucy” flew past the 0.8-kilometer-wide asteroid Dinky, which orbits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
In the weeks leading up to the close flyby, astronomers noticed unusual flickering. It turned out that Dinky had a hidden moon – a small, 220-meter-wide rock that periodically passes in front of its larger companion, causing the flickering.
Dinky is the smallest asteroid that any spacecraft has explored, and such observations cannot be made from Earth – the best way to study asteroids is to get up close and personal.
One More “Tiny” Surprise
However, there is another twist: Dinky’s secret moon is actually two tiny moons that are in contact with each other. Known as contact binary systems, these moons are a rare phenomenon in the asteroid world, and this discovery provides valuable insights into their formation and evolution.
Q: What did the analyses of Ryugu and Bennu reveal?
A: The analyses revealed the presence of building blocks of life, such as amino acids and nucleobases, on these asteroids.
Q: Are there more potentially dangerous asteroids that we haven’t detected?
A: Astronomers believe that there are more hidden asteroids, especially those hidden in solar flares, that pose a potential threat to Earth.
Q: What methods can be used to deflect asteroids?
A: The kinetic impact method, as demonstrated by the DART mission, and the detonation of a nuclear explosive near an asteroid are two potential methods for asteroid deflection.
Q: What surprises have been discovered during asteroid exploration?
A: Asteroid Dinky was found to have a hidden moon, and further analysis revealed that it was actually two small moons in contact with each other.
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