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It’s a Small Solar System After All

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Asteroids Ryugu (left) and Bennu (right), shown side by side roughly to scale. Soon we'll be getting to know a lot more miniature worlds like these. (Credit: JAXA, left, NASA-GSFC/U-Az, right)

A tale of two asteroids: Ryugu (left) and Bennu (right), shown side by side roughly to scale. Ryugu is just under 1 kilometer wide; Bennu is about 500 meters. Soon we’ll be getting to know a lot more miniature worlds like these. (Credit: JAXA, left, NASA-GSFC/University of Arizona, right)

Many years ago, this magazine was owned by the Walt Disney Corporation, and I would sometimes get one of the company’s songs stuck in my head: “It’s a Small World,” the relentless musical accompaniment to the ride of the same name at Disney World in Florida. That song has popped up in my brain again recently, but in a very different and more majestic context. We are entering a new stage in the exploration of the solar system, one that inverts the theme of much that came before. Big is out and small is in.

The hot destinations in space right now are comets and asteroids–including asteroid Bennu, now coming into view of the ambitious OSIRIS-REx probe. The most innovative robotic explorers are the size of a briefcase. And in NASA’s latest pivot, the long-term plan to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars is set to begin on a decidedly modest scale, with a set of low-budget, privately built lunar explorers. Cue the mental music: “It’s a Small Solar System (After All).”

To be fair, planetary scientists have been working hard to explore the small bodies of the solar system at least since Halley’s Comet passed close to the Sun three decades ago. But effort really kicked into high gear in 2014, when the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta probe arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and sent back dazzling images and data from the rubber-duck-shaped comet. Rosetta also deployed a small lander, Philae, that didn’t work quite as planned but that greatly added to the drama of the mission.

Previous spacecraft had revealed comets only as fuzzy, cryptic objects. Rosetta turned Comet 67P into a world of its own.

Not to be outdone, the Japanese space agency (JAXA) sent its Hayabusa2 probe to the asteroid Ryugu with four landers in tow. I covered the early results and implications of that mission in an earlier blog post. Ryugu is shaped like a top, strewn with rubble. Early views of Bennu show an intriguingly similar shape; apparently this is a common result of a rapid rotation, low gravity, and a weak internal structure. OSIRIS-REx will officially arrive at Bennu on December 3. We will get to know this 500-meter-wide asteroid a whole lot better in the weeks to come.

The current doubling up on small asteroids offers just a hint of what is coming soon. JAXA plans to follow up with the DESTINY+ mission to Phaethon, a bizarre “rock comet” that appears to be rocky but sheds dust into a cometlike tail. Some of those dust bits hit Earth every year as the Geminid meteors.

NASA has three very different asteroid missions in the works. Lucy will visit seven different Trojan asteroids, primitive bodies that share an orbit with Jupiter but travel ahead of or behind the giant planet in its course around the Sun. Psyche will explore an object of the same name–a bizarre metallic asteroid that may be the remnant core of an ancient, shattered protoplanet. DART will fly an impactor into a small near-Earth asteroid to test technologies for deflecting a body on a collision course. ESA may send a follow-up mission, Hera, to explore the aftermath of the impact.

That list doesn’t even include possible missions by the Indian and Chinese space agencies. Nor does it reflect the real explosion that is likely to follow a few years after–a consequence of the other small trend in space exploration.

MarCO-B (Wall-E) took this amazing shot of Mars just after closest approach, when it was 7,600 kilometers from the planet. The grid at right is probe's communication antenna. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

MarCO-B (Wall-E) took this stirring shot of Mars just after closest approach, when it was 7,600 kilometers from the planet. The grid at right is probe’s communication antenna. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Attack of the Cubes

When NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars last week, an even more significant event was taking place high overhead. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the lander; it is an exceedingly clever mission that will examine the geophysical origin of Mars by studying the planet’s seismology and the flow of primordial heat from its interior. But in many ways InSight follows a now-familiar approach, built on the same basic architecture as earlier Mars landers.

What was not familiar was InSight’s companions, two tiny attendant probes officially known as MarCO-A and MarCO-B but more affectionately nicknamed Eva and Wall-E. They were build using an off-the-shelf, modular design known as a Cubesat. Nearly 1,000 Cubesats have been launched around the Earth to carry out focused experiments at low cost. Eva and Wall-E were the first Cubesats adapted for deep-space exploration. You can bet they won’t be the last.

The MarCO project was primarily a technology experiment to prove that Cubesats could be powerful enough and robust enough to be useful tens of millions of kilometers from Earth. They succeeded beautifully, helping to relay data from InSight during and immediately after its Mars landing. Eva and Wall-E also carried small, commercial onboard cameras that took unique snapshots of Mars as they flew by. (They do not have rocket engines of their own, and were never designed for landing.) The MarCO project had a budget of just $18 million.

One of the Mars Cubesats being prepared by Joel Steinkraus, MarCO lead mechanical engineer at JPL. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tyvak/Cal Poly SLO)

One of the Mars Cubesats being prepared by Joel Steinkraus, MarCO lead mechanical engineer at JPL. Yeah, it’s small. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tyvak/Cal Poly SLO)

NASA plans a larger test of Cubesats when it makes the first test flight of the Space Launch System rocket, currently planned for June, 2020. You could not ask for a more pointed contrast: the enormous, late, over-budget SLS rocket unleashing a fleet of 13 nimble, fast, cheap space explorers.

Most of these Cubesats will fly to the Moon. They will dovetail nicely with NASA’s just-announced program of hiring private companies to deliver science experiments to the Moon. But one of the Cubesats, NEA Scout, will follow MarCO into deep space, this time using a small solar sail to navigate to a near-Earth asteroid (hence “NEA”).

Asteroids and Cubesats are natural companions. Landing on a planet requires a massive, complex set of mechanisms for decelerating and touching down softly. Because of their feeble gravity, small asteroids like Bennu and Ryugu are much simpler. All you really need to do is fly alongside them. You can touch down (more like “brush by”) and then take off again with hardly any energy at all. Why, even a Cubesat could do it. Small bodies and small spacecraft go together naturally.

The other synergy between asteroids and Cubesats is volume–or rather, abundance. There more than one million asteroids the size of Bennu or larger. It would be scientifically fascinating to survey a large number of them up close, but it would be madness to attempt that with a series of $800 million missions like InSight. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine sending out dozens, even hundreds, of budget Cubesats to swarm around Earth’s orbit and out into the asteroid belt like a hive of bees checking out the flowers in their neighborhood.

Space-resource enthusiasts like Philip Metzger have already sketched out concepts along those lines. Last year, a Finnish group showed how a fleet of 50 nanospacecraft could survey 300 asteroids in about 3 years, for much less than the cost of a single Mars lander. Asteroids are appealing commercial targets because their resources are right there for the taking–easy on, easy off. Asteroids and comets are also appealing scientific targets because they are surviving remnants from the early days of the solar system. Piece by piece, chapter by chapter, they contain the story of our origin.

We will understand the full sweep of that story only when we put the small parts together. And…there goes that song in my head again.

For space and astronomy news as it happens, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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