An artistic rendering of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readying itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

Sky News This Week: October 21, 2020

This week’s news: OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu, a spacecraft prepares to fly by Venus, and a flying observatory catches details about star formation.

OSIRIS-REx touches asteroid Bennu

An artistic rendering of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readying itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu. (NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

The spacecraft OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) conducted a “touch and go” maneuver on Tuesday, October 20 on asteroid Bennu to collect pebbles and dust from the surface. If all goes to plan, the spacecraft will bear the precious sample back to Earth, arriving in 2023 for further analysis. The landing maneuvers were assisted by Canadian high-definition mapping of the asteroid, performed by the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) last year. This contribution will entitle Canadian scientists to a portion of the sample.

Source: NASA

BepiColombo prepares for Venus encounter

The Mercury-bound European Space Agency spacecraft BepiColombo flew past Venus on Thursday, October 15. While the primary purpose of the maneuver is to position the spacecraft to eventually arrive at Mercury, BepiColombo will also test experiments on the atmosphere of Venus. A spectrometer will acquire about 100,000 images during two series of experiments, which includes a second Venus flyby in August 2021. The spacecraft will thus have a practice run before settling into Mercury’s orbit in 2025, following six Mercury flybys.

Source: German Aerospace Center

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated the incorrect date. SkyNews apologizes for the error.

Studying snowcapped mountain origins on Pluto

The snowcapped mountains that the New Horizons spacecraft saw on Pluto in 2015 had a different origin story than the snow we see on Earth. Pluto has methane snow that is only able to condense at the peaks of the mountains, new research shows, because the air has enough methane at this altitude for condensation. This adds on to previous research that shows Pluto has vastly different atmospheric compositions at different altitudes.

Source: CNRS (French National Center for Research), Nature Communications

Flying observatory spots how massive stars generate life-bearing elements

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which flies on a modified Boeing 747 aircraft, has spotted water and organic molecules in the discs from which young stars form. The high-resolution infrared spectral survey allowed the scientists unprecedented insight into how these discs are formed, showing that they are heated from the inside out and showing changes in the chemistry in the gas surrounding the core. Simple organic molecules were detected, such as ammonia, methane and acetylene, which would serve as building blocks for more complex organic molecules — including those that support life.

Source: Universities Space Research Association, The Astrophysical Journal

ISS astronauts participate in Canadian medical experiment

Crew members on the International Space Station are participating in a medical experiment in space that could assist with helping those with movement disorders on Earth, such as Parkinson’s disease. The study’s goal is to see how microgravity changes our perception of the environment. Vection, the name of the experiment, will include seven participants using virtual reality headsets to estimate the size of an object, motion down a simulated corridor, and motion as tilting or as visual acceleration.

Source: Canadian Space Agency, CSA Twitter

Elizabeth Howell (Ph.D.) is a Canadian space journalist who has been obsessed with the topic ever since she, as a young teenager, saw the movie Apollo 13 in 1996. She grew up wanting to be an astronaut. While that hasn’t happened (yet), Elizabeth has seen five human spaceflight launches — including two from Kazakhstan — and she participated in a simulated Red Planet mission at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.