Space Rocks!

It was a fantastic holiday season for space fans! In fact, there was so much going on, it was almost impossible to keep up with it all.

According to your news sources and interests, you have probably heard about at least some of the amazing things that happened, but chances are you haven’t heard about all of them. What’s more, you may not have heard about some fun angles on the latest developments — there are even tie-ins to rock ‘n’ roll!

You are most likely to have heard that NASA engineers had quite a New Years celebration when New Horizons successfully executed a flyby of a tiny object named 2014 MU69 while moving at 32,000 miles per hour.

The planetesimal 2014 MU69 is better known by it’s nickname Ultima Thule, and it’s located way out past Pluto in a region of the Solar System called the Kuiper Belt. Here’s a spot from CNN covering the achievement as well as what it has to do with the rock band Queen!

Yes, Brian May, former lead guitarist for Queen, is now an astrophysicist and a team member on the New Horizons Mission. He wrote and performed this new song entitled New Horizons to celebrate the flyby on New Years day.

Some scientists may be referred to as “rock stars” from time to time, but it’s seldom literal. It’s also fairly rare for an astrophysicist to be mentioned in Rolling Stone.
Hear Queen Guitarist Brian May’s New Anthem to Space Travel (Kory Grow, Rolling Stone)

Brian May also created a 3D stereoscopic image of Ultima Thule that was released in a NASA news conference.


Scientists show off space snowman, Ultima Thule, in 3D (Marcia Dunn, Associated Press)

You can find out more about New Horizons’ flyby of Ultima Thule in these articles.
New Ultima Thule Discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons (New Horizons, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)
Cosmic Collision Created “Snowman” MU69—the Farthest World Ever Explored (Alexandra Witze, Nature magazine)
Finally, New Horizons’ First Photos of Ultima Thule (Robbie Gonzalez, Wired)
NASA: Icy object past Pluto looks like reddish snowman (Marcia Dunn, Associated Press)
With Ultima Thule Flyby, NASA Probe Helps Unlock Secrets of Planetary Formation (Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com)
NASA’s New Horizons Just Made the Most Distant Flyby in Space History. So, What’s Next? (Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com)
After flying by Ultima Thule, what’s next for New Horizons? (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

Most news stories about Ultima Thule mentioned that it’s the furthest object that’s been photographed. However, New Horizons isn’t actually the spacecraft that’s the furthest away and doing science. That honor belongs to the twin Voyager spacecraft. In fact, earlier in the holiday season you may have heard or seen some stories about Voyager 2 joining Voyager 1 in interstellar space.


NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space (NASA/JPL)
Voyager 2 Spacecraft Enters Interstellar Space (Jonathan O’Callaghan, Scientific American)
What’s Next for NASA’s Voyager 2 in Interstellar Space? (Meghan Bartels, Space.com)

Some of stories about Voyager 2 may have mentioned that both Voyagers carry special golden records. Here’s a segment from Business Insider that explains how the records were designed to communicate with any aliens that might happen upon them in the distant future.

Believe it or not, there’s even a tie-in with rock ‘n’ roll here. The cool scientists that designed the record actually included a recording of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode.
Voyager, What’s on the Golden Record: Music From Earth (NASA/JPL)

Here’s a video from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame of Chuck Berry performing it with Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.

There was a lot of news about space rocks closer to home over the holidays as well. That’s because, not just one, but two spacecraft reached milestones in their respective journeys to explore two asteroids.

The biggest news was that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx entered orbit around asteroid 101955 Bennu on New Years Eve. Among other things, this set records for the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft and the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft.

Here’s a video and press release about this milestone that was posted by the OSIRIS-REx Mission on December 31st.


OSIRIS-REx entered orbit around Bennu on 31 December 2018 (Lonnie Shekhtman, Osiris-Rex Mission)

There are many reasons that Bennu is an interesting object for scientific study, but one of its biggest claims to fame is that it is a “potentially hazardous object” that is listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale. The only one with a higher rating is asteroid (29075) 1950 DA (JPL/NASA) (Wikipedia). Neither of these asteroids are very likely to hit Earth, but they are the most likely (that we know of, so far).

The holiday season also brought some continuing coverage of Japan’s nail-biting Hayabusa2 Mission to asteroid 162173 Ryugu (Wikipedia). The mission is scheduled to collect a sample of Ryugu and return it to Earth in December 2020. One of the many notable things about this mission is that it uses some unusual hopping robots. Here’s a video from Tech Insider and a story from Science Magazine about the ambitious mission.


Japan’s asteroid mission faces ‘breathtaking’ touchdown (Dennis Normile, Science Magazine)

Here’s a fun bit of trivia. Last summer Brian May also created a 3D stereoscopic image of Ryugu using a picture captured by Hayabusa2.


Queen’s Brian May Will Rock You with This Stereo Image of Asteroid Ryugu (Meghan Bartels, Space.com)

Finally, closer to Earth, the most recent development of the season is that China successfully landed the Chang’e 4 rover on the far side of the Moon. Here’s a story from Tech Insider that explains why this is a big deal.

Note that almost every story takes advantage of the teachable moment to clarify that it should be called the “far side” rather than “dark side” of the Moon, because it isn’t actually dark there. There are also some inevitable references to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. In fact, when I went searching on YouTube for videos about China’s landing, it served up this trippy 360° video.

I’m sort of sad that it happens to be Pink Floyd’s album that’s getting a bit of play over this, because the more relevant rock music about the Moon is probably David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Notably, astronaut Chris Hadfield paid homage to this by making a music video of it while living on the International Space Station (ISS).

In addition, here’s a 360° video that frames a trip to the Moon as a tribute to David Bowie.

So that’s a wrap up of the wild holiday season in space exploration, and I hope you enjoyed the detours into rock ‘n’ roll, too.

Space Rocks & Happy New Year!

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