By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor
Between dinosaurs and movie directors, asteroids have gotten a bad reputation. When one of these space rocks gets spotted anywhere near Earth, the instant response is for people to fear an apocalyptic impact—even when the odds of the thing hitting us are incredibly slim. Thanks to scientists, though, we know that asteroids are so much more than cosmic hazards.
Many of these objects are full of the building blocks of life, including carbon-based materials and water-bearing minerals. In Earth’s early days, the planet was being bombarded by impacts, and some experts think it’s possible asteroids delivered some of our planet’s life-giving liquid, and maybe even the chemical ingredients needed to spark our biological bounty. But a lot of what we know about asteroid composition comes from the pieces that made it through our atmosphere and landed on Earth, which means that we have a somewhat imperfect picture.
This week, NASA took a bold step in deciphering what asteroids are all about by going right to the source. Launched in 2016, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at an asteroid known as Bennu in 2018 and began orbiting the ancient ball of rock. Now, in a daring maneuver, the spacecraft has successfully “touched” Bennu, swooping down in an area the size of a few parking spaces (illustrated above) to collect a sample of the asteroid’s surface material. It’ll be a few days until we know how much of this pristine rock the craft has in its coffers, Michael Greshko reports from mission control in Colorado. If successful, the mission’s scooper, which looks like an automotive air filter (below), might have grabbed up to 4.4 pounds of material, which will then be delivered to Earth in a couple years’ time for detailed study.
Intriguingly, the asteroid NASA chose to visit may one day return the favor. There’s a 1-in-2,700 chance that Bennu will collide with Earth in the late 2100s, the space agency says. That’s just another reason scientists want to understand it better, since an asteroid’s composition can affect whether and how we might try to nudge it off course.
In the meantime, the scientific world will be waiting to find out if OSIRIS-REx truly succeeded in its historic game of tag with a space rock, and looking forward to the special delivery that’ll be headed our way if it did. “I cannot wait to get those samples,” principal investigator Dante Lauretta tells Greshko. “We’re going to have so much fun.”
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Today in a minute
This just in: For decades, people had denigrated LBGTQ people by saying their orientation was a choice or a psychological disorder. Since then, researchers have debunked those notions, delineating the complexities of orientation. Countries have legalized same-sex marriages, and many have included an array of LGBTQ protections in basic societal human rights. Today, in a shift from Catholic doctrine, Pope Francis called for civil unions for same-sex couples, the Washington Post reported. “What we have to create is a civil union law,” he said.
Guilty: The makers of Oxycontin have agreed to plead guilty to charges of defrauding federal health agencies and violating anti-kickback laws—and face $8.3 billion in penalties, the Justice Department announced today. The owners of Purdue Pharma, members of the wealthy Sackler family, also will pay $225 million in civil penalties, the New York Times reports. Here’s our look at how Oxycontin and other opioids have ravaged America.
Who will get the vaccine first? An influential report proposes first dibs for emergency responders, people with underlying conditions, and older adults living in group settings. But also, for the first time in history, the National Academy of Medicine recommends that priority be given to people affected by poverty, lack of access to transportation, or crowded housing—all linked to poor health outcomes. The goal: rectify the pandemic’s disproportionate burden on African American and Latino and poor people and “work toward a new commitment to promoting health equity,” Sarah Elizabeth Richards reports for Nat Geo.
Bigger fires, better tricks: Fireball-dropping drones, Rehabbed passenger jets. Firefighters are embracing new tools to battle wildfires in the western United States. “Because of their size and maneuverability, drones can access places that fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters can’t,” David Helvarg writes for Nat Geo. (Above left, a drone prepared to drop ping pong-ball-sized devices that explode when they hit the ground, starting small fires that will rob an approaching fire of the fuel it needs to spread; right, a drone can release 450 of these incendiary devices in less than four minutes.)
Tulsa Massacre: Archeologists encountered remains on Tuesday at a site that had been pinpointed as a possible mass grave site from the 1921 killings of hundreds of African Americans by white mobs in the Oklahoma city of Tulsa. Authorities said they excavated a wooden coffin and remains from one individual and possibly a second, and are excavating at a nearby site as well. The horrific murders of Black people, from which no one was convicted, had not been taught in Oklahoma schools and were unknown to many Americans until last year, when they were a backdrop to the Showtime series Watchmen.
Zeptoseconds: We’ll be quick here. A zeptosecond is the name for the shortest interval of time ever recorded. How short is it? German researchers say it took 247 zeptoseconds for a particle of light to cross a single molecule of hydrogen, NBC News reports. A zeptosecond represents a trillionth of a billionth of a second.
Instagram photo of the day
Teaching in 2020: While on the road documenting the 100 days leading up to this year’s election, photographer Ed Kashi met Jeff Gregory, superintendent of public schools in Hayden, Arizona, in July. He stood for a portrait in one of the plexiglass cases he planned to provide for each of his teachers as a way to protect staff and the students. Weeks before Ed met Jeff, one of his teachers, Kimberly Byrd, died of the COVID-19 virus. “She was a longtime, beloved teacher and a member of this rural community,” Ed tells us.
Related: Where COVID-19 cases are rising
The night skies
Celestial triangle: This week skywatchers get great views of the waxing moon posing with the gas giants in the southwestern sky. While tonight will see an eye-catching alignment of Saturn and Jupiter with the Moon, tomorrow evening the moon will glide in between the two neighboring worlds to form an even more dramatic triangular formation. Telescopes trained on Jupiter tonight at 8:31 pm ET will also get a chance to see the giant cyclonic storm known as the Great Red Spot—twice the size of Earth—cross the center of the planet’s face. Also tonight, the annual minor meteor shower known as the Orionids is peaking. Expect to catch at least half dozen shooting stars per hour throughout the week. Keep in mind that each meteor you wish upon is actually a tiny remnant shed from the famed Halley’s comet. —Andrew Fazekas
Related: Were Ancient Greeks the first to spot Halley’s comet?
The big takeaway
pposites: One thing can be said about the two candidates for America’s presidency. On energy and the environment, Donald Trump and Joe Biden could not be more different (except for fracking). As America elects a president, Nat Geo’s Craig Welch and Sarah Gibbens briefly delineate the candidates’ positions on public lands, climate change, pollution, and renewable energy.
In a few words
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The last glimpse
Little bitty dinosaur: Grown up, a tyrannosaur ran to three tons in weight and would stretch out for 30 feet. However, it started out about the size of a Chihuahua. At least that’s what the first known fossils of baby tyrannosaurs reveal. The fossils were found in Montana and Alberta, both dating to about 71 to 75 million years ago. The analysis of the fossils fills in gaps in our knowledge of the baby dinos, Riley Black writes for Nat Geo. (Pictured above, an illustration of what Tyrannosaurus rex hatchlings may have looked like. The newly described embryonic fossils were not from T. rex, but an earlier species of related tyrannosaur that has not been identified.)