A handful of Sutter's Hill meteorite fragments collected April 24, 2012, two days after the fall. Two months later, the scientists reported having 77 meteorite fragments.
On April 10, 2013, the White House and NASA released details of the US space agency's budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Included in the budget was a request for over $100 million to begin work on the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission. The mission would see a robotic spacecraft rendezvous with a small asteroid, which would then steer the space rock to the Earth-moon libration point (EML2) -- a region of gravitational stability beyond the far side of the moon. A manned mission would then meet the "tamed" asteroid to carry out science in-situ. It has been determined that such a mission would optimize the scientific gains while reducing risk and cost. On Wednesday, NASA released an animation detailing the stages of asteroid capture, here are the highlights.
Although its exact configuration has yet to be established, the robotic asteroid capture spacecraft will likely be solar powered and be propelled by an advanced ion drive. Optimistic estimates put a 2017 launch window on the first phase of the mission.
When approaching the asteroid, the spacecraft will jettison the hatch covering the folded asteroid "capture bag." According to the Keck Institute study that the mission is based on, the asteroid will be approximately 7 meters wide and have a mass of 550 tons.
The capture bag will expand like an accordion's bellows in preparation for asteroid capture.
The spacecraft will likely carry out an automated docking maneuver with the asteroid. Seen here, a laser is emitted by the spacecraft, guiding it in.
When fully expanded, and centered, the capture bag will envelop the space rock.
A draw-string-like mechanism will allow the capture bag's opening to be closed around the asteroid, securely mating spacecraft with asteroid.
Once secured, the spacecraft will "de-spin" the asteroid and begin steering it toward the Earth-moon system. This will mark the first time in human history that we have ever changed the trajectory of a natural object in space.
Meanwhile, preparations will be underway for a manned expedition to the captured asteroid. Seen here, NASA's future Space Launch System (SLS) rocket blasts off.
NASA's Orion space capsule will take a team of astronauts to the asteroid's parking orbit at EML2.
The Orion capsule will perform a docking maneuver with the robotic asteroid capture spacecraft after several days transit.
With the asteroid secure, astronauts will have the freedom (and time) to carry out extensive studies during extravehicular activity (EVA).
With the science done and samples collected, the Orion capsule returns to Earth.
The entire mission will culminate in the spashdown of the Orion capsule with astronauts on board. The asteroid will remain parked at EML2 for further study by followup missions to the lunar farside. You can watch the whole video on the NASA website:http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=161659311
Scientists have discovered unexpected ingredients for life — organic molecules never seen before in meteorites — inside a chunk of space rock that fell to Earth over California last year.
The discovery comes from an analysis of the so-called Sutter's Mill meteorite, which lit up the California night sky with a dazzling fireball in April 2012. Meteorite fragments from the event may shed light on the primordial ooze that helped give rise to life on Earth, researchers said.
Meteors that streak across Earth's sky mostly are fragments of the asteroids that lie between Mars and Jupiter. Meteorites can be rich in organic compounds, including some found among life on Earth.
"Their composition therefore has always been seen as an indication that the precursors to the evolution that led to the origins of life could have come from the extraterrestrial material of meteorites," study lead author Sandra Pizzarello, a biochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe, told SPACE.com. "Since the origins of life are utterly unknown, the idea has its merits."
Pizzarello and her colleagues analyzed two fragments of the Sutter's Mill meteorite, which streaked through the skies on April 22, 2012, crashing in California. Fragments of this meteorite were given to researchers who have worked on similar rocks before, including Pizzarello.
The organic chemicals in meteorites can get extracted with the aid of solvents. Speculation regarding the origin of life is based on the notion that it arose from a "prebiotic" soup of organic molecules, perhaps delivered in part by meteorites. Initially, fragments of the Sutter's Mill meteorite apparently possessed fewer dissolvable organic compounds left after solvent extraction compared to other similar meteorites.
"You may say that it was a disappointment," Pizzarello said.
However, the researchers tried dissolving the fragments in conditions mimicking hydrothermal vents on Earth, the environment often seen in the early Earth that life might have arisen within. Upon such treatment, the rocks released organic molecules not previously detected in similar meteorites. The findings that suggest there are far more organic materials available via meteorite for planetary environments than scientists assumed.
Scientists investigating the origin of life often suppose dissolved compounds desirable for life need to first have gotten concentrated and held together somehow, much as cell membranes do for the cell's components. The organic molecules the researchers discovered in the Sutter's Mill fragments "could be good for such a purpose, because they can form rudimentary enclosures to contain compounds useful to prebiotic evolution," Pizzarello said.
The scientists detailed their findings on Monday (Sept. 9) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
More from SPACE.com:
Meteorite Fragments Searched For In Sierra Nevada Mountains | Video
7 Theories on the Origin of Life
Meteor Shower Quiz: How Well Do You Know 'Shooting Stars'?
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