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NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

5 Goals of the Groundbreaking OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Mission Launching Today

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

NASA's asteroid sample retrieval spacecraft is ready for launch. OSIRIS-REx is an ambitious mission to the asteroid Bennu, a mountain-sized "near-Earth object" that scientists believe holds the secrets of the solar system's origins. Today, September 8, at 7:05 p.m. EDT (weather permitting), it will launch into space and begin a two-year journey to Bennu. The mission team will eventually choose the most scientifically interesting spot on the asteroid and direct the spacecraft to make contact and take a physical sample. It will return to Earth in 2023 and eject the sample capsule, which will parachute down to Utah's west desert.

The science objectives of OSIRIS-REx are right there in its name: Spelled out, it is the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer. The vehicle carries a payload of five scientific instruments and a sample collection arm called the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) to help it accomplish each of the key words or phrases in its name. Each instrument and its purpose is explained below.

1. ORIGINS: BRINGING A TIME CAPSULE FROM THE BIRTH OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM BACK TO EARTH

"This is really what drives our program," Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the mission, said on Tuesday, September 6 at a press conference held at Cape Canaveral, where OSIRIS-REx will launch from. "We're going to asteroid Bennu because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation, back when our planetary system was spread across as dust grains in a swirling cloud around our growing proto-star." Bodies accumulated in the cloud, many getting water ice and organic material—key compounds that led to the habitability of Earth and the origin of life. Bennu is one such body. By taking a hopefully carbon-rich sample of the asteroid and bringing it home, planetary scientists will be able to study in a laboratory setting a pristine cache of the building blocks of Earth.

Lauretta describes sample return as being the forefront of planetary exploration. If Bennu is a time traveler from the distant past, sample return is time travel to the distant future. As new laboratory techniques and technologies are developed, they can be applied to the samples. Scientists today will be able to study the samples at the parts-per-million level. Fifty years from now? Who knows what technology will have been developed. To appreciate how massive an advance might be in store, consider that 50 years ago, computers were only just being introduced to the field of geology. Now we can study the composition of many bodies in the solar system.

2. SPECTRAL INTERPRETATION: ANALYZING BENNU'S COMPOSITION

Since Bennu's discovery in 1999, scientists have used the best telescopes on Earth and in space to study the asteroid. As such, they have an extraordinary data set from which to work, and believe they have a pretty good handle on the asteroid's composition. The spacecraft, up close and personal with the asteroid, will use its spectrometers and cameras to provide "ground truth" to the distant observations of telescopes. Scientists will be able to see how well their predictions matched reality. What they got correct will have confirmation; what they got wrong can be used to refine their models. All of this can then be applied to thousands of other objects in the solar system.

3. RESOURCE IDENTIFICATION: EYEING FUTURE MINING OPERATIONS

Lauretta tells mental_floss that when OSIRIS-REx was first conceived, resource identification was "cool science fiction." The idea of going to asteroids and mining them for material was the sort of thing people in some Jetsons-like future would be able to do, but not us. Today, however, companies are lining up for the chance to begin celestial mining operations. OSIRIS-REx will be pioneering the technologies and capabilities necessary to provide detailed global analysis of an asteroid's surface. They will be able to focus on composition and mineralogy with an eye toward identifying regions of interest. It will be, in other words, creating the sorts of prospecting maps once seen in the Old West—only this time for an off-world ore-rush.

4. SECURITY: STUDYING BENNU'S TRAJECTORY TO AVOID POTENTIAL ASTEROID COLLISIONS

Earth's orbit around the Sun is startlingly perilous. Bennu, to name only one near-Earth object, has small-but-not-small-enough chance of colliding with this planet in the 22nd century. (The odds are 1 in 2700, which is about the same as your odds of dying by exposure to smoke or fire. That's a pretty terrifying figure when you consider the destruction and damage that such an asteroid impact might cause, and that people die in house fires all the time.)

Scientists will use the data returned from OSIRIS-REx to study something called the Yarkovsky Effect. As asteroids go about their orbit, they absorb energy from the Sun and emit that energy as heat. That emission essentially acts as a small, natural asteroid thruster, and changes an asteroid's trajectory over time. In the seven years that scientists have known about the existence of Bennu, the Yarkovsky Effect alone has changed the asteroid's position by about 100 miles. If they can get a grip on the phenomenon and its causes and effects, they can apply it not only to Bennu but also to thousands of objects throughout the solar system. If something bad is coming, we can know about it—and perhaps find a way to stop it.

5.REGOLITH EXPLORER: UNDERSTANDING HOW SURFACE PARTICLES BEHAVE IN MICROGRAVITY

Regolith is the blanket of dust and gravel on the surface of many celestial bodies. Scientists don't quite understand random mechanics in a microgravity environment. Even if Bennu's sample collection arm was unsuccessful, "By the act of putting our [Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism] device on the surface of the asteroid to collect the sample, in and of itself we are performing a fantastic science experiment," says Lauretta.

The science begins in 2018. The journey begins today.

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Disney Enterprises, Inc.
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Your $10 Donation Can Help an Underprivileged Child See A Wrinkle in Time for Free
Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Theater chain AMC is teaming with the Give a Child the Universe initiative to help underprivileged kids see A Wrinkle in Time for free through ticket donations. The initiative was started by Color of Change, a nonprofit advocacy group that designs “campaigns powerful enough to end practices that unfairly hold Black people back, and champion solutions that move us all forward.”

"Color of Change believes in the power of images and supports those working to change the rules in Hollywood so that inclusive, empathetic and human portrayals of black people and people of color are prominent on the screen,” the initiative’s executive director, Rashad Robinson, said in a statement:

Director Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time is the perfect subject for the group because, as Robinson puts it, “By casting a black teenage actress, Storm Reid, as the heroine at the center of this story, the filmmakers and the studio send a powerful message to millions of young people who will see someone like them embracing their individuality and strength to save the world.”

The movie touts a diverse cast that includes Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Zach Galifianakis, and Chris Pine. The most important member of the cast, though, is 14-year-old Storm Reid, who plays the main character Meg Murry, a young girl who tries to save her father (Pine) who is trapped in another dimension. The movie is based on the acclaimed 1962 fantasy novel by author Madeleine L'Engle.

If you’d like to donate a ticket (or more), you can just head over to the Give a Child the Universe website and pledge an amount. AMC will provide one ticket to children and teens nationwide for every $10 given to the cause.

And if you’re interested in seeing the movie yourself, A Wrinkle in Time opens on March 9, 2018.

[h/t E! Online]

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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