Space News Update June 2018: Alien Asteroids and MarsCopter!

Rhiannon Williams 2018-06-02

Header Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This time spacefans we have an alien! Ok it’s an asteroid, but anyway


There are many asteroids in the Solar system, they are not all equal however. After the recent visit by Oumuamua late last year that approached the Sun, then accepted a gravitational slingshot as a celestial taxi ride, its hardly surprising that scientists wouldn’t have a poke around to see what other stuff is lurking that doesn’t belong here. So the imaginatively named asteroid (514107) 2015 BZ509 is a rock of interest orbiting Jupiter retrograde, as in the opposite way to pretty much everything else in the Solar system.  It’s also been here a very long time, since the very early days of Solar system formation in fact. The Sun has a fair bit of gravitational reach as it happens and can influence objects for about two light years, just as any wandering star or large object can influence objects here. Maria Helena Moreira Morais, a professor at São Paulo State University’s Institute of Geosciences & Exact Sciences (IGCE-UNESP), with co-author Fathi Namouni, a researcher at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France have published their research to explain what they think is happening here.

“We’d already constructed a theory to explain the movement of this asteroid. In 2017, we published an article on it in Nature,” Morais said. “In order to try to understand the origin of the object, we later performed large-scale simulations, which resulted in a new article that’s coming out now in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.”

To figure this all out takes a huge amount of computer modelling as just one mistake with the initial conditions 4.5 billion years ago will result in errors that are wildy innacurate. When doing this you have to take into account the gravitational effects of our entire galaxy.

“To surmount these problems, we had to do a very large statistical study simulating a million orbits,” Morais explained. “Studies on this scale had never been done before. Simulations typically consider a thousand possibilities at most.”

Their modelling has shown that its rebellious retrograde orbit has remakably remained stable since it buddied up with the gas giant.

“The conclusion must be that this asteroid came from outside the Solar System. It must have been cut loose from a neighboring star system and been captured by Jupiter’s powerful gravitational field. Synchronism with Jupiter makes its orbit stable,” Morais said. “At the end of 2017, our system was visited by another extrasolar asteroid called ‘Oumuamua [‘messenger from afar arriving first’ in Hawaiian],” Morais recalled. “It traveled so fast that the Sun’s attraction bent its path slightly and made it hyperbolic. It would have had to be moving less fast for the trajectory to become elliptical, in which case it would have been captured by the Solar System.We may possibly be able to advance more if we can determine its chemical composition,” Morais said. “Given that star systems have distinct chemical compositions, immigrant asteroids like (514107) 2015 BZ509 may have enriched the Solar System with elements that didn’t exist here originally. In this way, they may have contributed to the emergence of life on Earth.”

That to me is the clincher, we need to study this object more in order to compare it to asteroids that we are familiar with. Minute differences in isotope and mineral ratios are how we know that comets (mostly) did not deliver water to Earth, the Moon lacks hydrated minerals for example. I will of course keep all of you updated and feel free to ask questions in the comments.


I have to say this gives me a smug feeling as I predicted this and cubesats some time ago, but I am well chuffed as to me it seems obvious. As a late, but welcome addition to the Mars 2020 rover’s instruments, a light helicopter is being sent along with it because who doesn’t want to fly a drone over Mars?

“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”

U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Texas echoed Bridenstine’s appreciation of the impact of American firsts on the future of exploration and discovery.

“It’s fitting that the United States of America is the first nation in history to fly the first heavier-than-air craft on another world,” Culberson said. “This exciting and visionary achievement will inspire young people all over the United States to become scientists and engineers, paving the way for even greater discoveries in the future.”

I’m of course in no way jealous of whoever pilots this thing…seeing as there are delays due to the laws of physics.

“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. “After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

“The altitude record for a helicopter flying here on Earth is about 40,000 feet. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, so when our helicopter is on the Martian surface, it’s already at the Earth equivalent of 100,000 feet up,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at JPL. “To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.”

“We don’t have a pilot and Earth will be several light minutes away, so there is no way to joystick this mission in real time,” said Aung. “Instead, we have an autonomous capability that will be able to receive and interpret commands from the ground, and then fly the mission on its own.”

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Zurbuchen. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

I’m going out out on a limb here, but cheap drones and cubesats will give us far more information than we currently have about the red planet than we can possibly achieve with rovers and landers alone, particularly if we plan on sending people there. Littering could be an issue when things inevitably go wrong, however, it’s a start and will give scientists a chance to test it. I assume these guys know how to fly them like I can’t, thankfully Mars doesn’t have any trees. I’m really excited about this in an unseemly fashion!

Going back to aliens, check out this virtual exoplanet tool!


If you like exploration as I’m sure we all do NASA has been mucking about with a nice app with which to do so plus some cool downloadable art in the way of posters. This works in 2D as well as VR, so I guess I’ll be trying it out on my new Rift as I finally caved in and bought one!

Do have a go!

If you like Project Discovery as much as I do, you know you want to!

That’s all for this time spacefans, please do tell me if you have any burning questions I can answer and see you next time!



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