Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft reaches cosmic ‘diamond’

RyuguImage copyright JAXA ET AL.
Image caption Scientists will map Ryugu with a view to choosing the best location to sample

A Japanese spacecraft has arrived at its target – an asteroid shaped like a diamond or, according to some, a spinning top.

Hayabusa 2 has been travelling toward the space rock Ryugu since launching from the Tanegashima spaceport in 2014.

It is on a quest to study the object close-up and deliver rocks and soil from Ryugu to Earth.

It will use explosives to propel a projectile into Ryugu, digging out a fresh sample from beneath the surface.

Dr Makoto Yoshikawa, Hayabusa 2’s mission manager, talked about the plan now that the spacecraft had arrived at its destination.

“At first, we will study very carefully the surface features. Then we will select where to touch down. Touchdown means we get the surface material,” he told me.

A copper projectile, or “impactor” will separate from the spacecraft, floating down to the surface of the asteroid. Once Hayabusa 2 is safely out of the way, an explosive charge will detonate, driving the projectile into the surface.

“We have an impactor which will create a small crater on the surface of Ryugu. Maybe in spring next year, we will try to make a crater… then our spacecraft will try to reach into the crater to get the subsurface material.”

“But this is a very big challenge.”

Hayabusa 2Image copyright JAXA / AKIHIRO IKESHITA
Image caption Hayabusa 2 will use a projectile to excavate fresh material from beneath Ryugu’s surface

Why is this story important?

Scientists study asteroids to gain insights into the origins and evolution of our cosmic neighbourhood, the Solar System.

Asteroids are essentially leftover building materials from the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.

It’s also thought they may contain chemical compounds that could have been important for kick-starting life on Earth.

They contain water, organic (carbon-rich) compounds and precious metals. The last of those has tempted several companies to look into the feasibility of asteroid mining.

‘Dumpling’ space rock comes into view


DangoImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption From far away, the asteroid seemed to resemble a Japanese dango dumpling…
Spinning topImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption…but now we have close-up images, scientists are comparing its shape to that of a spinning top

Dr Yoshikawa, who is an associate professor at Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), said Ryugu’s shape was unexpected.

He said asteroids with this general shape tended to be fast-rotating, completing one revolution every three or four hours. But Ryugu’s spin period is relatively long – about 7.5 hours.

“Many scientists in our project think that in the past the spin period was very short – it rotated very quickly – and the spin period has slowed down. We don’t know why it slowed down, but this is a very interesting topic,” he told BBC News.

Hayabusa 2 will spend about a year and a half surveying the 900m-wide space rock, which is about 290 million km (180 million miles) from Earth.

During this time, it will aim to deploy several landing craft to the surface, including small rovers and a German-built instrument package called Mascot (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout).

MASCOTImage copyright DLR
Image caption Hayabusa 2 is carrying a German-built lander called MASCOT

Ryugu is a so-called C-type asteroid, a kind that is thought to be relatively primitive. This means it may be rich in organic and hydrated minerals (those combined with water). Studying what Ryugu is made from could provide insights into the molecular mix that contributed to the origin of life on Earth.

The surface of the asteroid is likely to have been weathered – altered by aeons of exposure to the harsh environment of space. That’s why Hayabusa 2’s scientists want to dig down for as fresh a sample as possible.

The onboard Lidar (light detection and ranging) instrument is used partly as a navigation sensor for rendezvous, approach, and touchdown. It illuminates the target with pulsed laser light to measure variable distances between the two objects. On Tuesday, scientists successfully used the Lidar to measure the distance from Hayabusa to the asteroid for the first time.

The mission will depart from Ryugu in December 2019 with the intention of returning to Earth with the asteroid samples in 2020.

The first Hayabusa spacecraft was launched in 2003 and reached the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.

Despite being hit by a series of mishaps, it returned to Earth in 2010 with a small amount of material from the asteroid.

An American asteroid sample return mission, Osiris-Rex, will rendezvous with the object 101955 Bennu in August.

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Saturn moon a step closer to hosting life

Image of a white ice moon with blue lines streaked across its surface and a small cluster of cratersImage copyrightNASA

Scientists have found complex carbon-based molecules in the waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Compounds like this have only previously been found on Earth, and in some meteorites.

They are thought to have formed in reactions between water and warm rock at the base of the moon’s subsurface ocean.

Though not a sign of life, their presence suggests Enceladus could play host to living organisms.

The discovery came from data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft.

An image of Enceladus next to a satellite map of Great Britain. The moon spans from the top of Scotland to YorkImage copyright PRESS ASSOCIATION
Image captionSmall neighbourhood: Enceladus is just 500km wide

A new pale blue dot?

“These huge molecules contain a complex network often built from hundreds of atoms,” explains study author Dr Frank Postberg.

“This is the first ever detection of such complex organics coming from an extraterrestrial water-world.”

On Earth, these molecules are usually biologically created, but this does not have to be the case.

“They are a necessary precursor to life,” says Dr Postberg, “[but] we currently cannot tell if these organics are biologically irrelevant or signs of prebiotic chemistry or even life.”

What does life need?

  • Liquid water
  • Energy
  • Organics (compounds containing carbon)
  • A group of particular elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur)

Phosphorus and sulphur have not yet been measured on the moon, but it has all of the other ingredients.

What next?

The Cassini mission, which ended by plunging into Saturn’s cloud-tops last September, was never designed to detect life.

In fact, it was dispatched before scientists even knew about the peculiar jets of water emerging from the south pole of Enceladus.

Cassini first observed them in 2005, after its arrival in the Saturn system.

The technology to distinguish whether molecules like those detected are biological in origin already exists on Earth.

“The next logical step,” says Dr Postberg, “is to go back to Enceladus soon with a dedicated payload and see if there is extraterrestrial life.”

Marree Man: The enduring mystery of a giant outback figure

This week marks 20 years since a helicopter pilot flying over central Australia spotted the outline of a giant man drawn into the earth.

The 4.2km (2.5 miles) tall figure, on a remote plateau in South Australia, is often thought to depict an Aboriginal hunter.

Dubbed Marree Man after a nearby town, it is one of the world’s largest designs to be etched into the ground.

But mystery surrounds who created it – and why.

Earlier this week, Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith offered a $5,000 Australian dollar (£2,800; $3,700) reward for any information about the artwork’s origins.

“How has it been kept secret for 20 years?” he said on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Monday.

‘Professionally done’

Marree Man has been a subject of fascination since its discovery in the desert about 700km north of Adelaide.

It has gained popularity on tourism flights because it is too large to be viewed from the ground.

Map

With an outline measuring a total of 28km, Marree Man had an initial depth of about 35cm (14 inches), according to local media reports.

Locals believe it portrays an Aboriginal man carrying a woomera – a throwing stick – in his left hand.

Marree publican Phil Turner says he is convinced that its creator, or creators, were “professionals” who possibly used GPS technology.

“Whoever did the outline marked it out with bamboo nursery skewers at every 10m,” Mr Turner told the BBC.

“If you didn’t have the co-ordinates, you would have no idea if you were standing in his left toe or his elbow. Considering GPS technology was in its infancy at the time, it is an absolutely remarkable feat.”

Mr Smith agrees, telling the ABC: “There were no mistakes – it was very professionally done.”

Several theories about its creators have circulated over the years.

An original post for the Marree Man drawingImage copyrightPHIL TURNER
Image captionA stake that was possibly used in Marree Man’s creation, locals say

Pilot Trevor Wright, the first to see Marree Man on 26 June 1998, says he spotted it by chance. But anonymous faxes were also sent to local businesses and media at the time, to inform them of Marree Man’s existence.

Some suspected it was the work of American artists because the faxes used US spelling and references. A plaque showing the US flag and Olympic rings was also found at the site.

But others have theorised that those clues were deliberately misleading, with alternative suggestions including local artists and even members of the Australian Army.

‘Mix of opinions’

The Arabana people are the traditional owners of the land on which Marree Man was created.

Arabana Aboriginal Corporation manager Lorraine Merrick said its appearance in 1998 had initially upset some Aboriginal people who viewed it as a desecration of their land.

She said there was “a mix of opinions now”.

However, Ms Merrick said the corporation – which administers the land – recognised that Marree Man had become an icon.

“It’s there now and you can’t turn back the clock,” she told the BBC. “So for us it’s about working out a clear strategy for its future.”

Marree Man has faded over the years, but locals, with the approval of the Arabana people, used machinery to help to restore it in 2016.

“Maybe the mystery is part of its attraction, but honestly I don’t have people coming up to me asking who did it or anything like that,” Ms Merrick said.

Legendary 17th century letter from Satan to a nun finally deciphered

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There is a legend that dates back to the 17th century, about an Italian nun who claimed to have written a number of letters during an episode of demonic possession.

The nun, Sister Maria Crocifissa Della Concezione, believed that the Devil himself wrote the letters while attempting to steal her from God. Only one of Sister Maria’s letters has survived.

Nobody at the time could translate the 14 lines of writing because it was apparently written in unknown language.

And for more than three centuries, nobody could decipher the letter. Eventually, academics, cryptographers, and occultists joined forces to decipher it with a code-breaking software found on the Dark Web.

The Dark Web is that place on the Internet where you find anything and everything that might otherwise be forbidden, such as cybercrime, drugs, and other shady matters.

But there are also brilliant applications that can be used for productive aims such as deciphering a 17th-century letter.

Daniele Abate, director of the Ludum science museum in the Metropolitan City of Catania, Sicily, told The Times of London that thanks to an intelligence-grade code-breaking system they could finally learn the meaning of the mysterious jumble of archaic script.

“We heard about the software, which we believe is used by intelligence services for codebreaking. We primed the software with ancient Greek, Arabic, the Runic alphabet and Latin to descramble some of the letter and show that it really is devilish,” said Abate. “The letter appeared as if it was written in shorthand. We speculated that Sister Maria created a new vocabulary using ancient alphabets that she may have known. We analyzed how the syllables and graphisms [thoughts depicted as symbols] repeated in the letter in order to locate vowels and we ended up with a refined decryption algorithm.”

Sister Maria had joined the Benedictine convent when she was 15. She was well known and liked by the other sisters and the abbess.

And then, one August day in 1676 when Sister Maria was 31 years old, she was found on the floor of her quarters, her face covered in ink and the letters clutched in her hands.

When she woke up, the nun claimed that she was possessed by Satan, who made her sign the letters but she resisted and wrote only “Ohimé” (oh me), for which she was later blessed.

And although the letter has recently sparked people’s curiosity worldwide, the research team at Ludum science museum hasn’t released the complete text yet, saying that it speaks of the nature of God’s relationship with man.

They have confirmed that the letter says: “God thinks he can free mortals … this system works for no one.” It also speaks about God and Zoroaster as inventions of the people; of the River Styx, saying, “Perhaps now, Styx is certain.”

In Greek mythology, the River Styx separates the world of the living from that of the dead. And it was Charon, the ferryman, who took the souls to the Underworld where they waited to be born again.

Charon was happy to do his job if the dead paid the fee to cross the river. According to the myths, when somebody died, their family buried them with coins laid on their eyes so that the soul of their beloved ones would safely cross Styx.

Abate did try to discover more logical explanations about the nature of the letter. In his opinion, Sister Maria was intelligent and well educated, but she probably suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

The mishmash of languages she used to write the letter were ones that she is likely to have learned during her time in the convent. As for her claims that voices spoke to her and told her what to do (write the letters), this supports Abate’s theory that the nun suffered from a form of schizophrenia.

Alex A

Ancient GPS – Viking sunstones

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There is a lot wrong with the popular History Channel series Vikings. There is a lot right with it, too. Much of what you see on screen falls in the middle somewhere.

An example or two of the wrong: If there even was a Ragnar Lothbrok (the series’ main protagonist in its first four seasons, and who some historians consider a conglomeration of many Viking characters), he did not live at the same time as his series’ brother, Rollo.

In the series, the character Rollo (in reality, “Gangr Hrolf,” or “Hrolf the Walker” for his long legs) lived 50 to 75 years before the man was actually born and he received land in France, which became “Normandy,” meaning “Land of the Northmen,” perhaps 100 years after the series begins.

After agreeing to help the King of France repel any further invasions by his brother, Rollo proceeds to use French troops to kill his Viking compatriots who complain. Why then is Rollo needed? Now he is just a lone Viking.

In the Season 5a finale, we see Rollo coming to the aid of his nephews Ivar and Hvitserk at the head of a massive fleet. If the French had a massive fleet capable of reaching Norway, it’s news to virtually everyone, and history would likely have played out much differently than it did.

Those are just a couple of things wrong with the character Rollo and the timeline of the program.

However, the series does get much right. Much of the everyday life of the Vikings depicted in the series is correct, with the popular exception of the semi-Mad Max leather costumes.

We know too that Viking men were frequently tattooed and wore somewhat elaborate hairstyles. We are told this by Arab travelers who documented their visits among the Northmen. Most of the rituals depicted in the series fits outside contemporary accounts as well.

It seems also that Michael Hirst, the shows’ creator and writer, got the idea of female warriors right. While “shield-maidens” had been loosely mentioned in some texts following the Viking era, there had never been definitive proof. We don’t have it now, but it’s beginning to look like some women did take part in Viking warfare, and/or at the very dangerous game of Viking politics.

In 1889, Viking-era remains were found in a grave in Birka, Sweden. 128 years later, they were identified as female through DNA testing. In the grave with the female skeleton were typical warriors goods. Though nothing points directly to her being a warrior–she may have been a high-status warrior’s wife, given his expensive goods as a token of love, or perhaps the high-status female was anticipating joining the Valkyries in the afterlife. We are not 100 percent sure.

However, when taken with tales from the sagas (whose details, not theme, should be taken lightly), we know that women played a significant role in the political world of Iceland.

We know that women in Norway and Iceland enjoyed rights that few other women of the time could even dream of, such as divorce and inheritance.

The series’ first episode revolves around Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother yearning to try their hand at raiding in the west, not around the Baltic Sea as they apparently have for years. This is another of the show’s errors–the Vikings knew full well there was land to the west.

10 Things you may not know about the Vikings

Trade had gone on sporadically for centuries throughout the breadth and length of northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. Still, many British trade goods arrived via Denmark over land from France, and not every Ragnar, Rollo, or Ivar would know how to get there over the open ocean.

Ragnar lets his brother in on a little secret. He has gained a “sunstone” from a wanderer, and this will allow them to successfully navigate even if the sun is obscured with cloud and fog, as is common as dirt in the North Sea.

Here’s the trouble. No one is sure that sunstone (which is the nickname for certain types of feldspar, and other stones, such as calcite and tourmaline) was used in the Viking era, or as early as Ragnar Lothbrok was said to have lived. Icelandic sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries mention “sunstones” but are vague about their use.

Later Christian texts mention them as well, but we do not know whether the Vikings of any era used them for navigation. Until archaeologists find one in a Viking grave or other yet undiscovered site, we may never know for sure.

Recent studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have shown that it was possible to navigate using a sunstone. As reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science in April 2018, two professors, Dénes Száz and Gábor Horváth, knowing the measurements and traits of Viking-era vessels, weather patterns in the North Sea and currents, ran 36,000 computer simulations of Viking voyages.

They found that if a navigator used a sunstone to monitor the sun’s position at least once every three hours he would reach his target exactly 92-100 percent of the time (and this period includes just before sunrise and just after sunset, as sunstones can magnify the suns light on the horizon before its truly visible to the naked eye).

In one of their simulations, the professors used a different type of sunstone, and departing from Norway in their simulation, found that if they checked their stone for the sun once every four hours instead of three, they would blow past the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, and end up in…Canada.

 Matthew Gaskill


Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.

Chasing the Sun: The woman forgotten by science

Annie MaunderImage copyright RAS/DORRIE GILES
Image caption Annie Maunder: A pioneer of solar astronomy

On the far side of the Moon lies the Maunder crater, named after two British astronomers – Annie and Walter Maunder.

Annie worked alongside her husband at the end of the 19th Century, recording the dark spots that pepper the Sun.

The name Maunder is still known in scientific circles, yet Annie has somehow slipped from history.

“I think the name Maunder is there and we have all rather forgotten that that’s two people,” says Dr Sue Bowler, editor of the Royal Astronomical Society magazine, Astronomy and Geophysics.

“She was acknowledged on papers, she published in her own name as well as with her husband, she wrote books, she was clearly doing a lot of work but she also clearly kept to the conventions of the day, I think.”

The ‘lady computers’

Annie Scott Dill Russell was born in 1868 in Strabane, the daughter of a Reverend.

Clearly of fierce intelligence, she won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, and became one of the first female scientists to work at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

In the courtyard of the observatory, looking over the park, curator Dr Louise Devoy, tells me what little they know about her work.

The Royal Observatory, GreenwichImage copyright NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1933

“She was one of what we now call the ‘lady computers’ employed in the early 1890s by the then Astronomer Royal, William Christie,” she explains.

“I believe she came from Northern Ireland and she worked here for several years on very low pay just like many of the computers here, both male and female.

“In terms of what she actually did here, we have very little concrete record or photographs.'”

‘Grit and devotion’

Female scientists were hindered because of their gender until the 1920s and 30s, despite superb skills and experience, says Dr Devoy.

At Greenwich, employing women with a university education in mathematics was an audacious experiment.

Women were only considered because the Astronomer Royal needed skilled assistants but could afford only lowly computers – historically, schoolboys on a wage of £4 per month.

Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, NewfoundlandImage copyright ALFRED JOHNSON/ANNIE MAUNDER’S FAMILY
Image caption Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, Newfoundland
Walter MaunderImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Walter Maunder met Annie after the death of his first wife and collaborated with her until his death

Maunder was offered a post as a lady computer, which meant a huge drop in pay for someone who had been working, briefly, as a school teacher.

Letters show that she appealed for more money but was turned down.

The lady computers would carry out routine calculations to turn raw observations into usable data. They were also trained to use telescopes.

At times, this meant walking through Greenwich Park at night without a chaperone, an activity that was frowned on at the time.

“In an age when many middle-class women were still chaperoned, the grit and devotion of these young women astronomers, clad in their clumsy long gowns as they worked at their telescopes or in the laboratories, were surely remarkable,” wrote the science historian and astronomer Mary T Brück.

In 1892, the names of Annie Russell and fellow Greenwich astronomer Alice Everett were put forward to become fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society.

However, they failed to gain enough of the popular vote in a secret ballot and were rejected.

The RAS had long argued that since the pronoun “he” was used in the charter, women could not be admitted alongside men.

Instead, Annie Russell and Alice Everett, who had studied together at Cambridge, joined the amateur British Astronomical Association (BAA).

Alice Everett grew tired of the low pay and left Greenwich, eventually developing an interest in the new field of television. Annie Russell stayed on.

“She was clearly very tough and wanted to follow her science,” says Dr Bowler.

“She sat the [difficult] mathematical Tripos at a time when women couldn’t actually be awarded a degree and there were even protests at Cambridge against the whole idea of giving women degrees.

“So she was clearly tough enough to do that and to do it well and to succeed then in getting employment as a scientist, which was fairly rare anyway – astronomy was still very much a gentleman’s pursuit.”

Studying the Sun

Annie Russell married her colleague Edward Walter Maunder in 1895.

Under civil service rules, as a married woman, she was forced to give up her paid position, bringing the age of lady computers to an end.

“She did come back as a volunteer during the First World War and then she was taken on as a paid employee later in the 1920s,” says Dr Devoy.

On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting togetherImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting together
Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipseImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipse

Annie worked alongside Walter taking photographs of the Sun, laying the groundwork for a modern understanding of solar activity.

“They would take photographs of the Sun every clear day just to note where the sunspots were and to sketch where they were,” says Dr Bowler. “But she also, as a trained mathematician, put quite a bit of effort into analysis. She wasn’t just writing things down; she wasn’t just Walter’s assistant.”

Annie Maunder went on many scientific expeditions to observe eclipses around the turn of the century, often as the only woman. She travelled to Lapland, India, Algiers, Mauritius and Labrador.

She even designed her own camera to take spectacular pictures of the Sun, including the first photograph ever of streamers from the Sun’s outer layer, or corona.

“She particularly caught an extremely long ray – a streak of the corona – coming out from the Sun, while it was eclipsed, that nobody had ever seen before – a feature of the corona that people just didn’t know about,” says Dr Bowler.

“I’ve seen photos of her adjusting the instruments. She’s taking her photographs. She’s not at all a passenger.

“It may have been only socially acceptable for her to go because she’s travelling with her husband but she was on official scientific expeditions and her photographs were acknowledged as among the best.”

The Heavens and Their Story

The conventions of the time meant that Annie’s photographs were published under her husband’s name and she could not speak at scientific meetings.

However, she was eventually made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1916, 24 years after first being proposed.

Annie Maunder medal Image copyright RAS
Image caption The RAS has set up the Annie Maunder medal

She was involved with promoting astronomy to a general audience as vice president of the BAA and edited the in-house journal.

In 1908, the Maunders published the book, The Heavens and Their Story, which was aimed at popular science.

The book was released under both their names, but her husband acknowledged in the preface that it was almost all her work.

The Maunders are also well known for the butterfly diagram, which shows how the number of sunspots varies with time, and the Maunder Minimum, a period in the 17th Century when sunspots all but disappeared.

Much of their work still holds true today.

Annie’s legacy

This year, Annie’s name is being remembered through the inaugural Annie Maunder Medal, to recognise public engagement in science.

“She is an ideal person for that medal to be named after,” says Dr Bowler. “That’s largely what she was doing, certainly later in her career.”

Annie Maunder died in 1947, long after her husband.

On a leafy street near Clapham Common I find the Victorian terraced house where she spent her final years.

From the outside there is nothing to speak of the pioneering scientist.

Yet, despite perhaps not getting the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, she clearly left her mark on science.

“From her letters which are in the Royal Astronomical Society archives she was a very strong-minded, very decided personality,” says Sue Bowler.

“She didn’t mince her words. She’s really quite amusingly rude in some of her letters and very precise.

“I really admire her – she’s one of the people I would definitely have at my dream dinner party – I think she would be extraordinarily interesting.

“And her thoughts, her opinions about the paper based on her observations are very modern and form the basis for solar physics through a lot of the years following.”