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NASA Just Flew Home Its First Asteroid Chunks From Outer Space

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A capsule holding precious bits of space rock fell from the sky at breakneck speed Sunday morning, completing the first U.S. mission to bring home a sample from an asteroid.

The capsule’s recovery from a Utah desert concludes a seven-year, 4 billion-mile journey through space that may help scientists solve mysteries of the solar system and even shed light on how life sprung on Earth.

NASA plucked the mushroom-shaped pod from the Utah Test and Training Range, southwest of Salt Lake City, after its landing at 8:52 a.m. Mountain Time. The U.S. space agency chose the enormous military base to drop the projectile to avoid risk to human life.

But the charred capsule containing gravel and dirt from the asteroid Bennu didn’t stay put for long. A helicopter whisked it away to a clean room at the range’s Dugway Proving Ground, the Army’s largest and most isolated facility in the continental United States.

UPDATE: Sep. 24, 2023, 6:44 PM EDT OSIRIS-Rex scientists have removed portions of the asteroid sample canister so they can continuously flow nitrogen gas into it. This process, happening at a temporary clean room at Dugway Proving Ground, removes any potential unwanted contamination from Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA called the OSIRIS-Rex landing — short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security Regolith Explorer — a historic success. Though officials have always said they believed the team would clinch it, the feat has been likened to throwing a touchdown pass over 10 football fields and landing it perfectly in the farthest end zone.

“What you saw executed today, that precision, everything going just almost perfectly to plan, that happens because of an incredible team — hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science division director, at a news conference Sunday afternoon.

About four hours before the landing, flight controllers commanded the spacecraft to drop the capsule while it was still 63,000 miles above Earth. Meanwhile, they were aiming for a target of only 250 square miles on the ground. At its highest speed, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, traveled 27,650 mph, engulfed in a fireball.

Over the past week, rain had sprinkled the region, making the desert floor a bit soft and muddy. But the weather improved in time for the capsule scavenger hunt. With clear skies and low wind Sunday morning, the capsule was relatively easy to find, landing only a few feet from a roadway on the base.

The Air Force assisted with the operation, using radar and cameras to determine the precise location of the capsule for the recovery team. With help from its glowing tail, airmen spotted it plunging through the sky at about 8:40 a.m. local time. Within 30 minutes of its touchdown, personnel rendezvoused with the package, sweeping the area around it for safety. The capsule was found intact, its nose firmly planted in the ground.

“It didn’t roll, didn’t bounce,” said Dante Lauretta, the team’s principal scientist, based at the University of Arizona. “It just made a tiny little divot in the Utah soil.”

Scientists wheel the OSIRIS-Rex capsule into a clean room at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on Sunday morning.

Though it appeared a flawless sequence of events, several team members said there was a heart-stopping moment when it was unclear whether the drogue chute had deployed. When Lauretta, who was in a nearby helicopter, finally heard confirmation that the main parachute opened, he cried tears of relief.

“That was the moment I knew we made it home,” he said.

Now the hard part begins. Scientists say it may take days — perhaps weeks — before they have a grasp on what’s inside the sample canister. Estimates based on the velocity of the spacecraft suggest it may hold a half-pound or a cup’s worth of rubble inside, but no one knows for sure.

“This is the rarest stuff we’ve ever had on Earth.”

Historic significance of OSIRIS-Rex mission

Not since the Apollo moon rocks, collected between 1969 and 1972, has NASA brought back space souvenirs of this magnitude. Japan’s space agency, JAXA, on the other hand, has become the global leader in such missions, having retrieved much smaller samples twice already from asteroids Itokawa and Ryugu.

NASA’s larger $800 million mission, years after the Hayabusa missions, could augur a new era in asteroid research. OSIRIS-Rex’s return kicks off “asteroid autumn,” said NASA program executive Melissa Morris, a series of crewless space voyages to small worlds in the remaining months of 2023. In October, NASA will launch its Psyche mission to a never-before-seen metal-rich asteroid. Then in November, the Lucy spacecraft will fly by an asteroid in the inner main belt to test its asteroid-tracking navigation system.

Japan’s space agency, JAXA, shared some of its Ryugu sample with NASA.

The space agency selected Bennu for OSIRIS-Rex because it is chock-full of carbon, meaning it could contain the chemical origins of life. The robotic spacecraft launched in 2016 and arrived at the asteroid two years later. The probe orbited the asteroid for two more years, collecting data, before scooping a sample. Then in 2021, it headed back toward Earth.

Bennu, about 200 million miles away, is as wide as the Empire State Building is tall. The asteroid also has an extremely remote chance of hitting Earth in the 22nd century. Learning about the space rock could be helpful for future efforts to deflect it, should that ever become necessary.

The capsule was found intact, its nose firmly planted in the ground.

“This is the rarest stuff we’ve ever had on Earth,” said Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Asteroids are thought to be the leftover rubble from our solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago. These ancient space rocks — or “grandfather rocks,” as one of the OSIRIS-Rex teammates put it — could provide clues about how the entire solar system evolved.

The asteroid Bennu is about as wide as the Empire State Building is tall.

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What scientists want to learn from Bennu

Scientists are poised to chip away at big questions with the new asteroid sample, such as: Did carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu deliver the compounds to Earth necessary for life to emerge?

A helicopter carries the landed capsule with a long line to a clean room for initial processing.

Through the spacecraft’s images, the team saw so-called “hydrothermal mineral deposits” on Bennu that they believe may have occurred early in solar system history, Lauretta said.

These are long veins of salty material that could suggest a hydrothermal system similar to what exists at Earth’s mid-ocean ridge. It’s a key environment where geologists think origin-of-life chemistry may have begun for this planet. But this kind of material hasn’t shown up in Japan’s Ryugu sample or any meteorites found on Earth so far.

“What I want to know is how do you go from a simple carbon molecule, like methane, which is a natural gas, to something like amino acids, which make our proteins, or nucleic acid, which makes up our genetic material,” Lauretta said.

The OSIRIS-Rex capsule will spend the night in Utah before being transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

His dream discovery would be evidence of amino acids starting to link together through chemical bonds to form a chain, known as a peptide, signaling protein evolution.

“It’s probably a long shot, but it would be a spectacular science result if we would discover something like that,” Lauretta said.

Bennu earned the nickname “the trickster asteroid” during OSIRIS-Rex’s spaceflight. Scientists believed when the spacecraft touched down to collect the sample three years ago, it would encounter pebbles. Instead, closeup images showed boulders and a surface that acted like a plastic ball pit.

Scientists say it may take days — perhaps weeks — before they have a grasp on what’s in the sample canister.

Hundreds of scientists and 60 laboratories around the world will study bits of the sample. But the rocks’ first stop will be NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where a specially designed clean room and glovebox are awaiting its arrival. The sample is expected to fly on a C-17 aircraft Monday.

About 20 minutes after dropping the capsule, the spacecraft fired its thrusters to avoid Earth. Then it officially began a new mission — OSIRIS-Apex — to yet another asteroid. If all goes well, the spacecraft will reach Apophis in 2029.

As for OSIRIS-Rex, scientists hope to open the lid of the canister on Monday or Tuesday.

“A big part of the job is also getting that material out to the scientific community” to study, Lauretta said. “This is a gift to the world.”





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India’s Private Rocket ‘Agnibaan’ Set For Launch By Agnikul Cosmos On May 28

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Another private Indian rocket is launching on May 28. Agnikul Cosmos will attempt to launch the ‘Agnibaan’ for the second time tomorrow at an expected time of between 5:30 to 7:30 am IST, India Today reported.

The Chennai-based space startup has also issued a Notice to Airmen (Notam) information to aware the authorities about the potential launch to avoid hazards.

According to Agnikul, the Notam will be active till June 5 for the launch which will take place from the company’s spaceport ALP-01 at Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota. This spaceport, which is India’s first private one, was inaugurated by ISRO Chairman S Somanath on November 25, 2023.

This would mark the second mission with a commercial launch vehicle. India’s first private rocket Vikram-S flew on November 18, 2022 during Skyroot Aerospace’s Prarambh mission.

ALSO SEE: India Gets Its First Private Launch Pad, And It Will Give Space Sector A Major Boost; Here’s How

What is Agnikul’s mission about?

Agnikul’s mission named SubOrbital Technological Demonstrator or SOrTeD is meant to test the single-stage Agnibaan rocket.

According to Agnikul’s website, the rocket to be used for SOrTeD will be powered by the Agnilet semi-cryogenic engine that uses kerosene and liquid oxygen. This single piece engine is entirely 3D printed and would be the first such power source used in a private rocket launch.

“Unlike traditional sounding rockets that launch from guide rails, Agnibaan SOrTeD will lift off vertically and follow a predetermined trajectory while performing a precisely orchestrated set of manoeuvres during flight,” Agnikul said in its mission profile.

ALSO SEE: Indian Tech Startup To Create World’s First 3D-Printed Rocket Engine; All You Need To Know

Agnikul is developing Agnibaan as a two-stage rocket which can be customised according to the customer’s needs. This two-stage rocket which measures 18 meters tall has a maximum payload capacity of 100 kg to a 700 km orbit and can be customised to add a ‘baby’ stage.

The mission was initially planned for launch on April 7 but was called off about two minutes before the lift off due to a communication issue between onboard hardware.

(Image: Agnikul Cosmos)





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Five Asteroids In 3 Days! A Barrage Of Space Rocks Are Heading Toward Earth This Week

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Five asteroids of varying sizes are set for a close encounter with Earth in the next two days. NASA’s Center For Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) has revealed that the smallest of them measures between roughly 4.5 to 10 meters in diameter whereas the biggest of them is about 32 to 73 meters.

The data has revealed that the smallest – 2008 LD – will be approximately 29.5 lakh km from Earth at the time of the fly by. It is travelling at a speed more than 16,000 km per hour.

Orbit of asteroid 2024 JV17. Image: NASA

The biggest of the five – the 2024 JV17 – will be approximately 66 lakh km away at the time of the closest approach while travelling at over 30,000 km per hour. Both these space rocks will fly past Earth on May 28.

ALSO SEE: Like Dinosaurs, Humans Will Become Extinct If A Single Asteroid Collides; ‘Asteroid Rush’ Trailer Proves Just That

The other asteroids – the 2021 LV (between 7-15 meters wide) and 2024 JG (between 22-50 meters) will get close to our planet on May 29.

Orbit of asteroid JO16. Image: NASA

There will be a close encounter today as well when the asteroid 2024 JO16 flies past Earth. According to the CNEOS data, it will be about 30 lakh km from our planet and will be travelling at more than 30,000 km per hour.

As the data suggests, there is no need to worry since the asteroids will fly from a safe distance from our planet. Besides, their size except for a few relatively big ones is also not a cause for concern.

ALSO SEE: Lack Of Earth’s Resources Can Be Fulfilled By Asteroids – And A US Firm Wants To Mine Them

(Image: Unsplash)



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Paytm warns of job cuts as losses swell after RBI clampdown

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Indian digital payments platform Paytm warned of job cuts on Wednesday after reporting that its net loss widened in the fourth quarter as it grapples with a recent regulatory clampdown.

One97 Communications, Paytm’s parent, said it expects to cut employee expenses and pare down its annual staff costs by $48 million to $60 million.

The company, once the most valuable Indian startup, reported a net loss of $66.1 million in the fourth quarter ended March 2024, compared to a loss of $20.11 million a year earlier. Revenue declined about 3% to $272.4 million from $280.4 million in the same period.

India’s central bank in February banned the company’s banking partner and sister company, Paytm Payments Bank, from conducting banking activity from March. That brought a sudden halt to Paytm’s slew of banking services, and the company was forced to ink new partnerships with other banks to keep many of those services running.

Paytm said it also took an impairment charge of $27.2 million related to its investment in Paytm Payments Bank in the quarter. In the quarter ending June this year, Paytm projected its revenue to be in the range of $180 million to $192 million.

In the full year ended March, Paytm’s revenue increased 25% to $1.19 billion from a year earlier, though higher payment processing charges, marketing costs, employee benefits charges and software cloud expenses weighed on its bottom line. As a result, net loss widened to $170 million from a loss of $213 million a year earlier.

Paytm’s results include “enough data points to suggest that the business is past the bottom in terms of payment volumes and user/merchant traction,” Bernstein analysts said in a note to clients. “Though from a financial metrics perspective, 1QFY25 is likely to be the bottom, as it would reflect the full impact of the lower steady state (vs. 2 months impact in 4QFY24).”

The analysts, however, cautioned that Paytm’s payment GMV has dropped by about 20% and the company’s expectations for its payment processing margin has also declined, which together “translates to a near 50% blow to the payment margins.” They estimated, however, that Paytm’s merchant lending volumes picked up in March and April — a clear sign of revival.

Paytm had about $1.03 billion in the bank as of March 31. The company’s shares were down about 1% on Wednesday afternoon to ₹349.20, giving it a market cap of $2.64 billion. Paytm went public in 2021 at a valuation of $20 billion.

“I am happy to share that we have successfully transitioned our core payment business from PPBL to other partner banks. This move de-risks our business model and also opens up new opportunities for long-term monetization, given our platform’s strength around customer and merchant engagement,” said Paytm’s founder and CEO, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, in the company’s annual shareholder letter.

“It has been possible in such a short period of time with extensive support from the Regulator, NPCI, Bank partners and our committed team mates. The unwavering commitment of our government and regulator to support innovation and financial inclusion, keeps us true to our mission and committed to our long-term sustainable growth opportunity,” he added.



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