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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu to nab sample

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Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday evening in a mission to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt.

The spacecraft — the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — made soft contact with the asteroid at 6:12 p.m. EDT.

The historic “touch and go” event featured animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection activities in real time. It takes time for real images of the touchdown to travel back to the Earth, so they won’t be released to the public until Wednesday.

The craft executed a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt.

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.

Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”

The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.

At around 1:50 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft left orbit around the asteroid before executing a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.

Once in position, the craft began its approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EDT. It then spent about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.

The area, which is 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.

The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.

The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.

“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.

Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.

If it failed, the spacecraft has enough fuel to attempt two more touch downs to collect material.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.



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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch until Thursday, if weather cooperates

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Just three days after sending 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, SpaceX is aiming to launch another batch of broadband satellites into space from Florida.

If the weather cooperates, Thursday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 15th Starlink mission.

Liftoff had been scheduled for 12:29 p.m. EDT Wednesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but controllers scrubbed the launch due to weather and rescheduled for 12:14 p.m. on Thursday.

With a launch Sunday, SpaceX increased the size of their Starlink constellation to nearly 800 satellites. The 15th mission will see another 60-odd satellites join the network.

“The goal of Starlink is to create a network that will help provide Internet services to those who are not yet connected, and to provide reliable and affordable Internet across the globe,” according to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather for Wednesday’s planned launch had looked so-so and the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.

“A mid-level inverted trough and associated easterly wave currently across the Bahamas will meander into the state over the next few days, bringing enhanced moisture, cloud cover, and instability with a higher coverage of showers and storms,” Space Force forecasters wrote.

They said Thursday’s forecast looks quite similar to Wednesday’s.

Earlier this month, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation was big enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in both the United States and southern Canada.

SpaceX has already offered Starlink Internet services to emergency responders in wildfire-stricken areas of Washington State.

Washington’s Hoh tribe is also using the Internet service to provide their members online education and telehealth services.



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Chernobyl-level radiation harms bumblebee reproduction

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Bees are more sensitive to radiation than scientists thought. Scientists found the reproduction rates of bumblebees declined significantly when exposed to Chernobyl-level radiation.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests radiation in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could impair pollination services, triggering wider ecological consequences than previously estimated.

Humans are not allowed to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the disaster area more directly impacted by the 1986 nuclear accident, the worst in history. However, the destroyed nuclear reactors are surrounded by forests that are populated by robust populations of birds, bears, bison, lynx, moose, wolves and more.

Efforts to gauge the effects of radiation contamination on insects have yielded mixed results in the past. While some studies have suggested insects are relatively radiation-resistant, others have demonstrated significant impairment.

When researchers exposed bumblebees in the lab to radiation dose of 100 µGyh-1, an amount approximating exposure inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reproduction rates among the bees dropped between 30 and 45 percent.

Researchers found a direct correlation between the size of the radiation dose and reproduction rate declines. Lower levels of radiation had a smaller effect, while larger doses yielded greater declines.

Scientists were surprised to find they were able to detect reproductive rate declines at very small levels of radiation exposure.

“Our research provides much needed understanding as to the effects of radiation in highly contaminated areas and this is the first research to underpin the international recommendation for the effects of radiation on bees,” lead study author Katherine Raines, environmental scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release.



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Scientists detail structural secrets of near-indestructible beetle

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Like the boss at the end of a video game, California’s diabolical ironclad beetle is seemingly indestructible.

Getting run over by a car is no sweat for the resilient beetle. And the species’ more common enemies, hungry birds, lizards and rodents, are regularly frustrated by the hardy beetle.

According to a new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the diabolical ironclad beetle’s near-invincibility is thanks to the insect’s touch exoskeleton and its remarkable ability to play dead.

Using high-resolution microscopic and spectroscopic imaging surveys, researchers were able to pinpoint the nanoscale characteristics that make its exoskeleton so sturdy.

“The ironclad is a terrestrial beetle, so it’s not lightweight and fast but built more like a little tank,” study co-author David Kisailus said in a news release.

“That’s its adaptation: It can’t fly away, so it just stays put and lets its specially designed armor take the abuse until the predator gives up,” said Kisailus, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

Lab tests showed the beetle can survive forces up to 39,000 times its body weight.

Imaging scans showed the beetle’s exoskeleton yields much of its strength from the elytra. Among flying beetles, the elytra operate as forewing blades, a kind of sheath for a beetle’s wings. The diabolical ironclad beetle’s elytra have evolved into a super strong, stationary shield.

The beetle’s elytra are composed of layers of a fibrous material called chitin and supported by a protein matrix. Compared to flying beetles, the ironclad’s exoskeleton feature 10 percent more protein by weight, lending an extra level of durability.

When scientists looked at how the ironclad’s two elytra are sutured together, they found the shields fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. When compressed, the components don’t shatter, but instead experience delamination, or layered fracturing.

“When you break a puzzle piece, you expect it to separate at the neck, the thinnest part,” Kisailus said. “But we don’t see that sort of catastrophic split with this species of beetle. Instead, it delaminates, providing for a more graceful failure of the structure.”

Closer examination revealed the presence of rodlike elements called microtrichia that researchers estimate work like friction pads, preventing layers from slipping when they experience delamination.

Using powerful X-ray imaging technology, researchers observed the behavior of the beetle’s nanoscale exoskeleton features while getting crushed. The imagines revealed what scientists suspected — the layers of the elytra and surrounding exoskeleton slowly delaminate, but avoid structural failure.

Researchers used a 3D printer to create a similar structural arrangement with synthetic materials. Models showed the design maximized the material’s strength and durability.

Tests showed the beetle’s structural genius — and the 3D-printed material it inspired — outperforms the traditional rivets and fasteners used for aircraft segments and reinforce stress points.

Scientists estimate their research will have a variety of applications in structural and material engineering.

“This study really bridges the fields of biology, physics, mechanics and materials science toward engineering applications, which you don’t typically see in research,” Kisailus said. “Luckily, this program, which is sponsored by the Air Force, really enables us to form these multidisciplinary teams that helped connect the dots to lead to this significant discovery.”



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