This year has kicked off with amazing feats in space exploration. Above are NASA images of the asteroid Bennu and the weird little rock/ice conglomeration called Ultima Thule.
How did we get them, and what else was going on this month in space? Glad you asked.
NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) Osiris-Rex reached the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and sent back spectral analysis (which proved the existence of water), stunning photos, and, soon, a sample of the surface, which will leave the asteroid’s minuscule gravity for a long journey to arrive on Earth in 2013. It’s in orbit surveying the asteroid to help engineers plan out the tricky phase of approach and landing. (That gravity is so minuscule the spacecraft can orbit as close as 1.4 kilometers, a record for close orbit of any natural object.)
I’ve already written of how NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) control room went nuts on New Years’ Day with the arrival of the New Horizons probe at a little bilobate object (it has basically one round object stuck on top of another, giving it sort of a bowling-pin appearance) in the Kupier belt known as 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule. New Horizons studied Pluto in 2015 and kept going, a tribute to the program’s engineers and technicians.
There have been a few oddly negative comments made in the media by people who felt 1) there was too much national pride (flags, etc.) about New Horizons, and 2) the use of "Ultima Thule" was wrong because the term had been adopted by a handful of white-supremacy morons. I don't get either one: New Horizons was paid for by American taxpayers and built by Americans, and the fact space exploration benefits all humankind doesn't make it wrong to recognize the nation that made it happen. As to the Roman-era term Ultima Thule (rougly, "most distant land"), there's no way to prevent ANY term from being appropriated by racists. There's no reason or point to carping about it.
China, meanwhile, soft-landed a probe and rover on the far side (NOT THE DARK SIDE!) of the Moon. The Chang’e-4 became the first spacecraft to pull off a soft landing on the side of the Moon away from human sight (and direct radio communication). The China National Space Administration (CNSA) reported the vehicle, which launched four weeks ago, entered lunar orbit December 12 in preparation for the landing. Once down, it deployed a suite of instruments to study the lunar surface, radiation, etc., sending back some great pictures at the same time. Then it sent out the rover, Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit 2: Jade Rabbit had been landed by the e Chang’e-3 spacecraft in 2016, but was short-lived) to explore further. The lander kept in touch with Earth via Queqiao, a Chinese relay satellite already parked at Earth-Moon Lagrange point 2. Designers of Chang’e-4 even made space for a sealed biology experiment with two kinds of seeds (including, of course, potato "eyes") and silkworm cocoons. Pretty impressive.
To infinity and beyond!