Author Topic: Asteroid Collisions, Wandering Spacecraft, and Eggnog  (Read 441 times)

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Asteroid Collisions, Wandering Spacecraft, and Eggnog
« on: December 22, 2023, 02:50:39 am »
Atlas Obscura  by Robin George Andrews December 21, 2023

Taking holiday a moment to appreciate how Earth got its water—and eggnog and mulled wine.

On a clear, bright morning in September 2023, a spacecraft landed at a military site in Utah—and humanity’s representatives burst into laughter, tears, and applause. It may not have seemed like it to most of us, but at that very moment, our species got a little closer at that moment to finding out the provenance of eggnog. And mulled wine. And, well, pretty much everything.

Minutes after the spacecraft gently rendezvoused with the planet, helicopters flew out to greet it. They swirled around the inert, rotund capsule, and dropped off a few people nearby. The visitors approached cautiously. The oven-sized vessel, once attached to a larger mothership, had traveled millions of miles around the solar system on a seven-year odyssey. And now it had returned home, full of treasure.

This was the very opposite of a UFO. Everyone had anticipated its safe arrival. The retrieval of the craft was the apotheosis of a billion-dollar effort called OSIRIS-REx—the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, and Regolith Explorer. Conceived in the early 2000s, launched in 2016, the spacecraft had many objectives. Chief among them was to become the first U.S. space mission to snatch matter from an asteroid and bring it back home. And, despite coming up against several comedically epic hurdles—from dodging debris from exploding rockets to escaping from the asteroid’s quicksand-like surface—it pulled it off.

The capsule, containing pristine and primordial cookie crumbs from an asteroid named Bennu—was speedily transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. A few weeks later, at a grandiose press conference, scientists announced something that, to them, was extremely exciting: The asteroid sample included, among other things, water.

Many of the fundamental features of our world are suffused with mystery. Water is one of them. Scientists have a fantastic understanding of how water is a remarkable medium for life, how it transmogrifies between various states of matter, how it dives through, flows across, and flies over the planet—how it dominates, shapes, and controls the fate of the world. But they don’t actually know where it came from.


Asteroids are also arbiters of creation. The water that they violently delivered to the young Earth is still being erupted by volcanoes or poured out by waterfalls today. The very same wandering geologic creatures have both the power to annihilate life and, in part, grant the planet the power to craft and sustain biology. They are rocky embodiments of chaos.

So do me a favor. This winter, when you’re knocking back your celebratory tipple, raise a glass to the memory of an ancient asteroid. These space rocks may have made a heck of a mess, but without them, you probably wouldn’t be here to toast the end of the year.