The ‘small wonders’ unlocking secrets of the solar system

Modern astronomy is giving us unprecedented views of the asteroids, comets, and other small bodies that litter our cosmic home. These planetary leftovers offer clues to our creation—and potential destruction.

In 2015 comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy—seen here in a two-photo mosaic—neared the sun for the first time in millennia. Lovejoy likely hails from the Oort cloud, a distant shell of icy objects thought to surround the solar system. It’s one of the roughly 4,000 known comets among the billions estimated to exist in our cosmic backyard.
Photograph by VELIMIR POPOV AND EMIL IVANOV AT THE IRIDA OBSERVATORY

Dante Lauretta is serene as he prepares for the 17 seconds he’s worked toward for the past 16 years.

Lauretta, a University of Arizona planetary scientist, is transfixed by a monitor showing three simulated views of a rubbly, top-shaped object floating in a sea of stars. That’s the asteroid known as 101955 Bennu. He’s watching it while perched on an upholstered metal stool inside an unassuming building in Littleton, Colorado. With its cinder-block hallways, pop-out ceiling panels, and the occasional wasp problem, the building could be mistaken for a run-of-the-mill office suite. But the spacecraft decals on the walls and the labels above each cubicle—Electrical Power; Telecom; Guidance, Navigation & Control—reveal its true function: mission control at Lockheed Martin Space.

It’s 1:49 p.m. mountain time on October 20, 2020, and the screen shows Bennu sitting within a green hoop that represents the orbit of a NASA spacecraft with a mouthful of a name: the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer—OSIRIS-REx for short. In less than three hours, this robotic emissary will attempt to descend and touch Bennu for the first time, hopefully trapping a sample of extraterrestrial dust and pebbles for return to Earth. (How did NASA land on and grab stuff from an astroid?)

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