Southwest Research Institute
Southwest Research Institute

NASA Announces Two New Asteroid Missions

Southwest Research Institute
Southwest Research Institute

The poet E.E. Cummings wrote, “—listen: there’s a hell / of a good universe next door; let’s go.” And go we shall: NASA’s Discovery Program announced this week that two robotic spacecraft named Psyche and Lucy will be setting out for nearby asteroids within the next decade.

For all our exploration over the last half-century, we still have much to learn about our own solar system. The Discovery Program aims to help fill in those gaps.

“Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter’s mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before,” NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. “This is what Discovery Program missions are all about—boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science.”

Lucy is scheduled to launch in 2021 and should arrive at her first stop, an asteroid in Jupiter’s main belt, four years later. The craft will then study six of the ancient Trojan asteroids, which may have formed a mere 10 million years after the Sun.

Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute is chief investigator on the Lucy mission. “Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets,” he explained in a statement, “they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins.”

The Psyche mission, directed by scientists at Arizona State University, will lift off in 2023. It will reach the metal asteroid, called 16 Psyche, between Mars and Jupiter by 2030, then orbit and observe it for another 20 months. The asteroid is made almost entirely out of nickel-iron metal similar to those at the core of rocky planets like Earth.

NASA / ASU SESE mission to the Psyche asteroid from ASU Now on Vimeo.

“The knowledge this mission will create has the potential to affect our thinking about planetary science for generations to come,” said ASU president Michael Crow.

The Fascinating Device Astronauts Use to Weigh Themselves in Space

Most every scale on Earth, from the kind bakers use to measure ingredients to those doctors use to weigh patients, depends on gravity to function. Weight, after all, is just the mass of an object times the acceleration of gravity that’s pushing it toward Earth. That means astronauts have to use unconventional tools when recording changes to their bodies in space, as SciShow explains in the video below.

While weight as we know it technically doesn’t exist in zero-gravity conditions, mass does. Living in space can have drastic effects on a person’s body, and measuring mass is one way to keep track of these changes.

In place of a scale, NASA astronauts use something called a Space Linear Acceleration Mass Measurement Device (SLAMMD) to “weigh” themselves. Once they mount the pogo stick-like contraption it moves them a meter using a built-in spring. Heavier passengers take longer to drag, while a SLAMMD with no passenger at all takes the least time to move. Using the amount of time it takes to cover a meter, the machine can calculate the mass of the person riding it.

Measuring weight isn’t the only everyday activity that’s complicated in space. Astronauts have been forced to develop clever ways to brush their teeth, clip their nails, and even sleep without gravity.

[h/t SciShow]

Watch Astronauts Assemble Pizza in Space

Most everyone enjoys a good pizza party: Even astronauts living aboard the International Space Station.

As this video from NASA shows, assembling pizza in zero gravity is not only possible, it also has delicious results. The inspiration for the pizza feast came from Paolo Nespoli, an Italian astronaut who was craving one of his home country’s national dishes while working on the ISS. NASA’s program manager for the space station, Kirk Shireman, sympathized with his colleague and ordered pizzas to be delivered to the station.

NASA took a little longer responding to the request than your typical corner pizzeria might. The pizzas were delivered via the Orbital ATK capsule, and once they arrived, the ingredients had to be assembled by hand. The components didn’t differ too much from regular pizzas on Earth: Flatbread, tomato sauce, and cheese served as the base, and pepperoni, pesto, olives, and anchovy paste made up the toppings. Before heating them up, the astronauts had some fun with their creations, twirling them around like "flying saucers of the edible kind,” according to astronaut Randy Bresnik.

In case the pizza party wasn’t already a success, it also coincided with movie night on the International Space Station.

[h/t KHQ Q6]


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