NASA's Lucy expedition aims to stir wonder about asteroids

In today’s newsletter, experts weigh in on mixing and matching COVID-19 vaccines; getting outdoors during COVID; October’s full moon; crash pads built for bees.

This article is an adaptation of our weekly Science newsletter that was originally sent out on October 20, 2021. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.

By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor

Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, I came of age around the same time as our species’ dawning awareness that asteroids are kind of a big deal. We’d known since the early 1800s that asteroids existed in the inky reaches of the solar system. But it took a few decades’ worth of telescope improvements to really start cataloging how many were out there—and which ones might fly close enough to Earth to pose a credible threat. By the late 1980s scientists were shoring up the notion that an asteroid was to blame for blasting most dinosaurs out of existence. And by the late 1990s Congress was mandating NASA to rev up its asteroid hunting to try to protect the planet from future calamity.

But like that Aerosmith power ballad from the movie Armageddon, it seems to me as if fascination with asteroids soon fell out of public favor. Maybe it was the subsequent barrage of clickbait headlines about asteroids making near misses with Earth. Maybe the boom in exoplanet discovery in the early 2000s stole their thunder. Whatever the cause, it’s a shame more people aren’t still hype for asteroids, because these things are scientific treasure troves.

Take, for example, a perfectly bizarre family of asteroids known as the Jupiter Trojans (two of them shown in the illustration above). These diverse space rocks exist in two groups that lead and trail the gas giant in its orbital path. By all rights they should not be there, since Jupiter’s intense gravity makes such orbits nearly impossible to enter and stay stable. Their very presence implies that they are incredibly ancient leftovers from the birth of the solar system, and that they can offer clues to the ways the planets formed and then shifted position over the past 4.5 billion years.

That’s why a NASA spacecraft dubbed Lucy—named for a famous fossil of an ancient human ancestor—blasted off this past weekend (pictured above) to investigate the Trojans up close. “In a sense, the Jupiter Trojans play the same role those iconic bones did: preserving vestiges of the distant past that scientists can use to make sense of our present,” our Michael Greshko writes of the mission and its namesake.

Provided a small glitch with its solar panels gets resolved soon, the Lucy mission should be able to deliver on its exciting potential—and perhaps revive public enthusiasm for the small wonders of the solar system.

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THE BIG TAKEAWAY

Have you gotten closer to nature since the pandemic? You betcha, readers told us after we asked that question in last week’s newsletter. Some have become volunteer citizen scientists; others have joined hiking clubs or taken up nature photography (thanks for the photos!) One elite birder, accustomed to weekend trips to “best places” for sightings, found his appreciation deepened after he began daily walks to a humble lake close to his home: "It was a reminder,” Jim from Minnesota wrote us, “that I don't always have to ‘maximize’ every experience.” A poll we did with Morning Consult shows roughly half of 2,200 respondents say they have spent more time in nature during the pandemic; less than a third say they are not. Majorities were reported in all age groups under 65, and among 49 percent of respondents 65 and older. (Pictured above, a rooftop garden in Manhattan, from a story on nature’s beneficial effects.)

Today’s question: Scientists and writers have explored the idea of placing reflective particles in our atmosphere as a kind of screen to blunt the sun’s rays and reduce human-caused climate change. Would you risk experimenting with our atmosphere now in an attempt to slow climate change? Let us know. We’re polling Americans on a similar question and will report results—and perhaps your comments—in next week’s newsletter.

PHOTO OF THE DAY

Listening at the top of the world: Antennae at Norway's Geodetic Earth Observatory point toward the sky from Ny-Ålesund, in the Svalbard archipelago. The devices can gaze at the furthest galaxies and observe Earth's changes and movements, writes photographer Esther Horvath. She is attracted to efforts to observe nature from the world’s extremes, such as this account of an Arctic expedition.

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TODAY IN A MINUTE

Still at risk: This probably comes as no surprise, but older adults are at higher risk of serious disease from COVID-19 breakthrough infections than their younger counterparts. Experts say they don’t have an adequate explanation, but it probably is related to hallmarks of aging that affect the immune system, Nat Geo reports.

Mixing and matching vaccines: Can you get a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine from one manufacturer and then a booster shot from another? Historically, combining vaccine doses from different manufacturers has rarely been authorized for other diseases. But scientific support would be a boon to low-income countries, which don’t have a stockpile of vaccines, Meryl Davids Landau writes.

Vapor storms: Why are storms intensifying so quickly and dangerously? Climate change has led to more water vapor in the atmosphere, Scientific American reports, turbo-charging thunderstorms, snowstorms, and hurricanes. SciAm says about a third of U.S. property damage caused by flooding—$73 billion—has been attributed to increases in heavy precipitation.

An epidemic within a pandemic: That’s how one expert refers to the mental health toll on kids during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don't want to sound too doom and gloom, but without intervention, kids are going to suffer, and it's going to be long-term injury,” Sharon Hoover, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, tells Nat Geo.

THE NIGHT SKIES

The Hunter's Moon: Rising in the east after sunset tonight, look for the hunter’s moon, the term for October’s full moon, named after the traditional North American hunting season. To the Anishinaabe people around the Great Lakes, it is known as the migrating moon after the birds that fly south in fall; to central Canada’s Cree Nation, it is the falling leaves moon. Also, tonight through Friday morning look for the annual Orionid meteor shower to peak, with 10 to 20 fast-moving shooting stars visible per hour. With the bright lunar glare to contend with, the best views will be with your back turned to the waning gibbous moon. On Monday, set your alarm to catch the best morning view of little Mercury for the entire year. Never far from the sun in our sky, the innermost planet will appear low in the southeast at its farthest distance from our sun.—Andrew Fazekas

SEE FULL MOON PHOTOS

THE LAST GLIMPSE

Crash pads: Researchers have discovered that some bees do more than pollinate blossoms; they sometimes use them as emergency places to rest in a pinch. That’s among a series of discoveries described in the November issue of National Geographic.

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This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, Jen Tse, and Monica Williams. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com. Thanks for reading, and happy trails.

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