On The Precipice Of The Future

So… We all know what tomorrow is and what’s at stake. I’m feeling confident, but then again, I was feeling fine four years ago too, so once burned, twice shy.

But while contemplating the future for us all, I wanted tonight to make sure everyone had seen a couple of things that relate to a bigger, better future that’s important to me and all of us, even those not in the US.

First, today’s the 20th anniversary of the day the first crew boarded the International Space Station.

For every single day for the past twenty years, there have been at least two or three folks off the planet. Always. Every day.

That record is still fragile. If there were an emergency on ISS (and there have been a couple times when things could have gone south that badly) the crew can always escape in their Soyuz or Shuttle or Dragon or (soon) their Starliner and come home. But that endurance streak would be snapped.

Some time in the next few years there will probably be a Chinese station, independent of ISS. And there’s talk of the Russians taking their modules from ISS and breaking away to join with some new modules they’re building to make an independent station, separate from the ISS. And there might be independent, commercial stations, or even hotels and tourist stations, within the next ten years or so. And before that we’ll probably have folks living permanently in a station orbiting the moon or down on the lunar surface.

We just have to get there from here.

Meanwhile, way out in the solar system, an American robot spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx has been orbiting a “tiny” asteroid called Bennu for a couple of years. In that time it’s mapped the miniscule gravitational field (you or I could easily just jump off the asteroid with escape velocity) and mapped it to astonishing precision.

That biggest boulder in the lower right is 10-20 meters across, with the whole thing being roughly 490 meters in diameter. It’s a “rubble pile” asteroid, debris left over from the formation of the solar system a few billion years ago.

One key goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission was to get a sample from the surface and return it to Earth for study. To do this there’s an arm on the spacecraft with a collector plate that’s about the size of a large pizza pan and six or seven inches thick. OSIRIS-REx was designed to do a Touch And Go (TAG) maneuver where the head would come in contact softly (-ish) with the surface for a few seconds, a stream of gas would get sprayed, causing debris, dust, and rocks to get sprayed up into the collector plate and captured.

They had no idea how well or how poorly this would work. Put the plate down on a rock and you get nothing but a broken spacecraft. Put it down crooked or not flat and you only collect a few grams of material. A lot could go wrong, and this was all being done by a robot acting on its own. At the time of the sample retrieval, Bennu was 233 million miles from Earth, over 18 light-minutes away. We couldn’t control it “live,” we just had to program it and hope for the best.

Two weeks ago, on October 20th, they made their attempt. The surface had been mapped and a flat spot was targeted, but it was the size of a couple of parking spaces, with larger rocks all around that could destroy the arm. Was the surface going to be hard or rocky? Or super soft and fluffy so the collector plate would sink down in and be trapped? Or somewhere in between?

It was spectacular! The targeting was perfect, just a couple inches off after seven years in space, billions of miles traveled. The surface was soft and fluffy and the blast of air kicked up a HUGE cloud of material, much of it being trapped in the collector plate. The collector plate head actually sank down into the surface a foot or so, so it’s a good thing you or I weren’t there trying to jump off the surface. It’s so fluffy and loose we would probably sink right down in.

They were hoping to maybe collect 60 grams of material, about the size of a candy bar. Instead they filled the collector head with an estimated 4,000+ grams of material, so much that the mechanism for keeping it in got jammed open and they were starting to leak material. Before they could lose very much, they skipped a few anticipated steps and moved on to stowing the collector head and its treasure for the journey back to Earth.

My point is that we are capable of amazing things as a people, when we work together and dare to dream. Obviously the last four years have shown what can happen if we allow fear and hatred to separate us, and this year has shown what can happen and how many of us can die if we ignore science and reason.

But tomorrow that can change, and I’m hoping it will. We can start to fix the damage done in the last four years and to set sight on the stars again.

1 Comment

Filed under Astronomy, Politics, Space

One response to “On The Precipice Of The Future

  1. Good luck!
    The rest of the world is watching in fear and trepidation.

    Liked by 1 person

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