Nasa, Cyrus Rex, Benue discussed on Overheard at National Geographic

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Piece. A huge chunk flew away from earth and that became our moon. But ultimately we get the planets we have today and all of this other flotsam and jetsam that didn't form into planets but was born at the same time of the same stuff and we call those objects today comets and asteroids and trans neptunia and objects and all these different populations that all exist on the same spectrum of leftover over time. We realized those leftovers a lot to tell us and in the past twenty years or so research into small objects has exploded. That's partly because of technology better. Telescopes and highrise digital cameras made it possible to zoom in on tiny objects. Like never before. But michael says there was also a critical window and asteroids grabbed our attention in nineteen ninety. There was a period was just a few days in march of one thousand nine hundred eighty eight where there was some concern of an asteroid impact that would affect us in the twenty twenties. Yeah so imagine waking up to headlines that the world might end in thirty years not so great thankfully. Scientists quickly announced that it was a false alarm. But that's scare couldn't have come at a more fitting time just a few months later not one but two major movies hit theaters booth featuring killer impacts from outer space and armageddon bruce willis leads a ragtag crew to nuke and oncoming asteroid. Which by the way is something that only works in the movies and in deep impact president. Morgan freeman gives a rousing speech. After spoiler alert a comet wipes out the eastern united states the specter of an impact loom so large that congress immediately told nasa to study the threat of killer asteroids and by july nineteen ninety eight nasa had formalized an office to look for specifically near earth objects. But it turns out that when you focus on finding near earth asteroids and you spend a lot of time with a lot of telescopes pointed to the night sky to try to find near earth asteroids you end up finding a lot of other stuff too so picture a. Solar system diagram the kind. You may have studied in grade school. That diagram would have eight planets or nine if you count pluto which i do throw in a few more dwarf planets plus a couple hundred moons and then factor in asteroids comets and other small objects the solar system gets much more crowded so as of twenty twenty one astronomers have catalogs slightly more than a million objects in the solar system. There's almost certainly many many many many more billions of trillions of objects in the solar system. It's just a question of whether we've gotten good enough to see them. And now we're not just seeing these little leftovers. Were visiting them. Michael got a window into how nasa is actually studying asteroids. So ah cyrus. Rex is a nasa mission. That late last year Down on the surface of an asteroid called benue cyrus. Rex actually isn't the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid. The japanese space agency did it in two thousand five and then again a few years ago but this is nasa's first time touching down. Michael was at mission control last year for that moment. When cyrus rex made contact with benue he says even though it was a tense moment. The mission's leader was strangely at peace. He'd been working on versions of this mission for sixteen seventeen years at that point for a window of time on the surface of this asteroid no more than ten twenty seconds. More than two hundred million miles from earth as cyrus rex touchdown and scooped up some venues rocks and dirt for regular lift to use the technical term. The space craft is set to return home in two years and just by getting close to benue. It made some groundbreaking discoveries like the fact that the asteroid has small amounts of water stored in its rocks now since the cargo is so rare researchers. Want to make sure they don't let any data go to waste. Michael says a cyrus. Rex will adopt some techniques. Pioneered by the japanese missions. They were very careful about the way that they opened the canister etc to get some of the stuff that had even like come off of the kind of the grains and pebbles they collected as gas. Which is i think. The first time anybody's ever gotten that measurement since it will take cyrus rex a couple years to return home. And then it's gonna take time to analyze the sample. It could be a while before we learned anything more about that asteroid but this fall a new explorer takes flight lucy. So we're going to send the lucy spacecraft to visit the trojan asteroids which are the remnants or you could think of him as the fossils of planetary formation. This is kathy bulkin. She's the deputy principal investigator of the lucy mission. One of the top scientists and. She's no stranger to ambitious missions. Before lucy she worked on new horizons which gave us our first close up view of pluto. But for almost twenty years cathy's had her eyes on one group of asteroids they're called the trojan asteroids so when did a mission start coalescing in your mind. And how long did it take to get it off the ground. Yeah so one thing You have to be very persistent in space. In space exploration humans have sent a few spacecraft to asteroids comets but nobody has ever explored the trojans so in two thousand nine. Cathy was part of a team that i proposed a mission to the trojans nasa said no thanks in two thousand ten. She tried again still no dice. But every time we learned more and we modified and improved our proposals intel. We submitted a proposal in twenty fourteen. That was this lucy mission. Kathy proposed flying past not one or two objects but seven different asteroids more than any other mission by far and this time nasa said yes so first things first. Lucy is a spacecraft. Not a person. The mission takes its name from lucy. The fossil the early human ancestor discovered in africa in the nineteen seventies and this fossil revolutionized our understanding of human origin in our intention with the lucy mission is to revolutionize our understanding of solar system evolution trivia buffs out. There may remember that. The original fossil was named lucy because scientists were listening to the beatles. Song lucy in the sky with diamonds as they celebrated the discovery. Well lucy. the spacecraft has a beatles tie into.

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