Every Asteroid Discovered Since 1980

From the far, far away to the startlingly close, there have been over 600,000 asteroids identified in the inner solar system since 1980. This visualization tracks them all.

The video is the work of Scott Manley. Manley included the path of the near-by asteroids that have been identified starting 34 years ago and carrying on to this year. The asteroids that cross our own orbit are in red, the ones that just get close are in yellow, and the ones even further out are all in green.

Source: io9.com

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has spotted an eruption of dust around a sun-like star, possibly the result of a smashup between large asteroids. This type of collision can eventually lead to the formation of planets.
"We are watching rocky planet formation happen right in front of us," said George Rieke, a University of Arizona co-author of the new study. "This is a unique chance to study this process in near real-time."

read more here
artist concept credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A mere 65 million years ago (less than 2 percent of Earth’s past), a 10-trillion-ton asteroid struck what is now the Yucatan Peninsula and obliterated over 70 percent of Earth’s land-based flora and fauna – including all the dinosaurs, the dominant land animals of that epoch.

This ecological tragedy opened an opportunity for small, surviving mammals to fill freshly vacant niches. A big-brained branch of these mammals, one we call primates, evolved a genus and species – Homo sapiens – to a level of intelligence that enabled them to invent methods and tools of science; to invent astrophysics; and to deduce the origin and evolution of the universe.

—  Neil deGrasse Tyson
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In 2002 a small asteroid known as J002E3 was discovered on a near earth orbit. It was first spotted by an amateur astronomer, Bill Yeung and was reported as a passing Near-Earth Object. Soon, however, the object’s motion suggested it wasn’t just passing by, it was in an orbit around the Earth. Its trajectory had all the telltale signs of being a space debris and further observations have also confirmed that the object’s spectral signature matched the white titanium dioxide paint used on Apollo rockets. J002E3 is most likely to be the third stage of the rocket that launched Apollo 12, which failed to crash on the Moon as planned. NASA used such impacts to generate ‘Moonquakes’ that could be studied by lunar seismographs to gain information on the Moon’s interior.

J002E3’s orbit is a bit unusual but not unique; the object spends some time in the Sun-Earth first Lagrange point (L1), then loops around Earth, reaches escape velocity in the process and flies back into heliocentric orbit where it currently resides. Although its orbit is constantly changing because of gravitational perturbations by the Sun and Moon, J002E3 is expected to come back around the mid 2040s.

Vesta’s Many Colors at Sextilia

This colorful image from NASA’s Dawn mission shows material northwest of the crater Sextilia on the giant asteroid Vesta. Sextilia, located around 30 degrees south latitude, is at the bottom right of this image.

The image was taken by Dawn’s framing camera from September to October 2011.

In this image, the entire color spectrum of Vesta becomes visible. While a large asteroid impact probably brought the black material, the red material may have been melted by the impact.

The composite image was created by assigning ratios of color information collected from several color filters in visible light and near-infrared light to maximize subtle differences in lithology (the physical characteristics of rock units, such as color, texture and composition). The color scheme pays special attention to the iron-rich mineral pyroxene.

Dinosaur-killing asteroid hit at just the wrong time

Animals might have survived if impact happened a few million years earlier or later.

Just before a large asteroid slammed into the Earth 66 million years ago, the diversity of plant-eating dinosaur species declined slightly, a new study suggests. That minor shift may have been enough to doom all dinosaurs when the space rock hit.

The scarcity of plant-eaters would have left them more vulnerable to starvation and population collapse after the impact, with consequences that rippled all the way up the food chain.

“The asteroid hit at a particularly bad time,” says Stephen Brusatte, a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “If it had hit a few million years earlier or later, dinosaurs probably would have been much better equipped to survive.”

Brusatte and his colleagues describe this nuanced view of the famous extinction in Biological Reviews.

Read more @Nature.

Congressional Hearing Slams Feasibility Of Asteroid Mining:

Two congressmen recently introduced the ASTEROIDS Act, which would grant property rights to companies seeking to mine the asteroid belt. Yesterday, the House Space Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill, where expert testimony bluntly told Congress the private sector is not up to the task of mining in space.

The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act — also known as H.R. 5063 — was introduced this past July by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA). The two congressmen, both members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, declared in a joint statement that the bill would not only create more jobs but also safeguard America’s economic security:

"We may be many years away from successfully mining an asteroid, but the research to turn this from science fiction into reality is being done today," said Rep. Derek Kilmer.

"Businesses in Washington state and elsewhere are investing in this opportunity, but in order to grow and create more jobs they need greater certainty. That’s why I’m excited to introduce this bill with Representative Posey so we can help the United States access new supplies of critical rare metals while serving as a launch pad for a growing industry."

Currently, rare minerals used to manufacture a wide range of products are found in a small number of countries. This has left the United States dependent on foreign nations for these resources. The limited supply and high demand for these materials, alongside major advances in space technology and a deeper understanding of asteroids, has led a number of private sector investors to begin developing plans to identify and secure high-value minerals found on asteroids and transport them for use here on Earth.

The legislation has the support of several organizations and companies that comprise the “NewSpace community,” which is dedicated to promoting innovative commercial ventures as the primary means to expand our presence beyond the Earth. That includes two U.S. companies that are actively developing plans for asteroid mining: Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Resources.

The initiative has also been tentatively endorsed by the Planetary Society as a way to build an off-world infrastructure for space exploration, by making use of resources extracted and manufactured in space — what is known as “in situ resource utilization” (ISRU). At yesterday’s hearing, James F. Bell, the president of The Planetary Society and a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, testified that:

The issue of resources on asteroids is particularly compelling, not only from the scientific perspective noted above, but also as we begin to imagine a future where humanity is moving outward beyond our home world, exploring and settling new frontiers in our solar system. Just like many of the settlers who moved to the American West in the 19th century, settlers moving outward from Earth in the 21st century and beyond will want to try to figure out how to “live off the land” as much as possible. Based on what we know now, there’s good reason to believe that asteroids could provide many of the raw natural resources that humans will need to live and work beyond Earth. Some are water-bearing (and thus, oxygen-bearing), others have significant concentrations of metals and silicates useful as building materials. Based on meteorite studies, some are even likely to contain significant amounts of precious metals. All of these attributes make asteroids potentially economically attractive targets for future resource extraction.

While the extraction of space-based resources from asteroids is certainly still many years away, The Planetary Society believes that it would be wise to start making the required investments in technology, infrastructure, and transportation systems required to study asteroids in the level of detail needed to make truly informed future decisions about their individual resource potential. As such, we support investments, through both commercial and governmental programs, in the kinds of technologies needed for the exploration and utilization of asteroids as contemplated in H.R. 5063.

The Long Road Ahead

The most detailed testimony at the hearing was also the most skeptical. Mark Sykes, the Director of the Planetary Science Institute and a co-investigator on the NASA Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, bluntly stated that, “The development of an NEO ISRU infrastructure is beyond the scope of private enterprise.”

Sykes believes that such an endeavor might one day be feasible, but not without first overcoming several hurdles that will likely require funding on a scale that could only be provided by the government. In fact, he reminds us, we’re not even sure about the precise composition of asteroids, which is crucial to planning mining operations:

We have some idea of their composition from remote spectroscopic observations and by picking up meteorites on the surface of the Earth and analyzing them. However, while spectra provide important clues to composition, they do not necessarily provide detailed information on bulk minerals comprising an asteroid. ….Likewise, meteorites represent only a small fraction of the mass of the asteroid entering the Earth’s atmosphere and do not necessarily present a complete picture of its composition.

Commercial asteroid resource extraction requires an understanding of the composition and mechanical properties of the material to be processed, and an understanding of how to do this under low-gravity conditions….In fact, it is unknown the extent to which any asteroid is compositionally homogeneous ….Extraction processes will have to be developed that accommodate a range of compositions …. At some point there would have to be the demonstration of an autonomous resource recovery facility on a near-Earth asteroid. There is then the need to assess the resource that has been extracted, determine the need for subsequent processing into usable material (e.g., water may need to be purified and then converted to hydrogen and oxygen, liquefied, and stored).

All this basic science and engineering is something beyond the scope of reasonable investment by a commercial entity, because there would be no expectation of return in investment on a reasonable timescales. I expect it would take a couple of decades to get to the point when one could answer the question of whether, with some level infrastructure in place, the marginal cost of processing and returning water from an asteroid would be cheaper than bringing it up from the surface of the Earth. Given the potential long-term benefit of a positive outcome in opening up the solar system to expanded human activity, this is a logical area of governmental investment. Once the basic science is known and basic technologies supporting this effort are developed, this would be the logical time for the private sector to come in and see if it could do things more cost-effectively.

Ad Astra, Contra Legem?

And then there’s the tiny detail about whether granting asteroid mining rights to U.S. companies is legal under international law.

Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, a prominent legal expert who was formerly the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law, testified that current treaties do appear to allow for the appropriation of natural resources from other planets and asteroids. However, what remains unclear is the ownership status of the resources when they are collected.

Michael Listner, an attorney who counsels governmental and private organizations on matters relating to space law and policy, raised similar concerns when I interviewed him for a previous article. Those in the commercial sector, who believe private ownership of resources extracted from space is legal, point to a British legal decision, which permitted the private sale of lunar soil that had been obtained by the Soviet Union. Listner, however, said:

My opinion is that the effect of the Soviet lunar sample precedent will be negligible when it is compared to the potentially trillions of dollars in mineral resources that could be extracted. The sale of the Soviet lunar sample was so minuscule that the international community hardly batted an eyelash….

The ASTEROID Act does score points for being crafted with international law in mind. It calls upon the U.S. government to:

Promote the right of United States commercial entities to explore and utilize resources from asteroids in outer space, in accordance with the existing international obligations of the United States, free from harmful interference, and to transfer or sell such resources; and develop the frameworks necessary to meet the international obligations of the United States.

But the “free from harmful interference” statement is problematic. The legislation further defines it as:

As between any entities over which the United States can exercise jurisdiction, any assertion of superior right to execute specific commercial asteroid resource utilization activities in outer space shall prevail if it is found to be first in time, derived upon a reasonable basis, and in accordance with all existing international obligations of the United States.

Sykes points out why this could quickly turn ugly:

Under the current language, I could today take published observations of near-Earth objects by the NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope, identify those with low albedo (enhancing their probability of being water sources), and lay claim to the 100 objects having the most favorable orbits for low-energy missions with good dynamical opportunities for returns of material to Earth orbit. Resource recovery may be decades in the future, but under the terms of this bill I can make an “assertion of superior right” by being “first in time, derived upon a reasonable basis” to have made that assertion and assuming it is “in accordance with all existing international obligations of the United States.” I can effectively increase the future costs of those who might be compelled to pay me for access to “my” asteroids or go to a less dynamically favorable resource target.

And the Wild West’s gold rush begins anew.