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Pristine extraterrestrial organic compounds recovered from fallen fireball

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Oct. 27 (UPI) — On a cold winter night in 2018, when a fireball streaked across the skies above Canada and the Midwest, a team of meteor hunters turned to weather radar to pinpoint its likely landing spot.

The fireball had come to rest on a frozen lake in Michigan. Researchers raced to find it and, amazingly, they were able to collect remnants of the meteorite before its contents were tainted by exposure to Earthbound water molecules.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science, scientists shared their analysis of pristine organic compounds recovered from the fallen space rock.

“We could see the minerals weren’t much altered and later found that it contained a rich inventory of extraterrestrial organic compounds,” lead study author Philipp Heck said in a news release.

“These kinds of organic compounds were likely delivered to the early Earth by meteorites and might have contributed to the ingredients of life,” said Heck, a curator at the Field Museum and an associate professor at the University of Chicago.

NASA’s weather radar typically helps meteorologists track precipitation, but because meteors fragment into rain- and snow-sized fragments as they travel through Earth’s atmosphere, the instruments can also be used to track pieces of meteorites.

With instructions from NASA scientists, meteorite hunter Robert Ward secured the first fragment from the frozen surface of Strawberry Lake, near Hamburg, Michigan.

Ward worked with fellow meteorite hunter Terry Boudreaux to get the space rock remnants to researchers at the Field Museum.

“When the meteorite arrived at the Field, I spent the entire weekend analyzing it, because I was so excited to find out what kind of meteorite it was and what was in it,” said study co-author Jennika Greer.

“With every meteorite that falls, there’s a chance that there’s something completely new and totally unexpected,” said Greer, a graduate student at the Field and the University of Chicago.

Researchers identified the meteorite as an H4 chondrite, a rarity. Just 4 percent of modern meteorites are H4 chondrites.

While most meteorite fragments are found weeks, months or — most often — years after they hit Earth, Ward collected the first remnants of the fireball just two days after it landed.

As a result, the meteorite pieces were largely uncontaminated.

“Scientists who study meteorites and space sometimes get asked, do you ever see signs of life? And I always answer, yes, every meteorite is full of life, but terrestrial, Earth life,” Heck said.

“As soon as the thing lands, it gets covered with microbes and life from Earth,” Heck said. “We have meteorites with lichens growing on them. So the fact that this meteorite was collected so quickly after it fell, and that it landed on ice rather than in the dirt, helped keep it cleaner.”

Researchers used a variety of analytical techniques to characterize the variety of pristine organic compounds found in the bits of freshly fallen space rock.

The authors of the new study suggest their discovery can help planetary scientists better understand how life-yielding compounds first arrived on primordial Earth.

“This study is a demonstration of how we can work with specialists around the world to get most out of the small piece of raw, precious piece of rock,” Heck said. “When a new meteorite falls onto a frozen lake, maybe even sometime this winter, we’ll be ready. And that next fall might be something we have never seen before.”



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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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