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Israel's moon mission, a tiny tyrannosaur and Neptune's new moon: This week in space and science

By Ashley Strickland, CNN | Posted - Feb 23rd, 2019 @ 3:42pm



NEW YORK (CNN) — A Japanese space probe fired a bullet into an asteroid, and Israel launched a spacecraft to the moon in the hopes of becoming the fourth country to land on its surface.

There's also a new moon around Neptune, a tiny tyrannosaur fossil changing the dinosaur timeline and intriguing insight about the habits of early humans.

NASA's InSight lander is now providing weather reports from Mars. It can get really cold there, so think about what Curiosity and InSight have to go through the next time you complain about winter on Earth.

NASA has also named another facility for Katherine Johnson, the incredible mathematician and "human calculator" for early missions, including John Glenn's Friendship 7 and several Apollo missions. In addition to the Katherine Jonson Computational Research Facility, there is now the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. It's fitting for the 100-year-old Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. To learn more about her achievements, read or watch "Hidden Figures" this weekend, if you haven't already.

And that's not even everything that happened this week in the world of space and science.

Here's what you might have missed.

Beresheet is off to the moon

It feels appropriate to start this with the news of the Thursday night launch of Beresheet, an unmanned spacecraft from Israel's nonprofit SpaceIL. The name refers to the first words of the Bible in Hebrew, "In the beginning."

The privately funded moon mission has embarked on a seven-week journey before it will attempt a soft, controlled landing on the moon. Expect cool photos of the moon's surface. It's also going to conduct experiments on the moon's magnetic field.

It's expected to land April 11 after circling the Earth multiple times before being "slingshot" to the moon, traveling about 4 million miles in the process. Enjoy the ride, Beresheet!

Ryugu's been shot

The Japanese space probe Hayabusa 2 shot a "bullet" into the asteroid Ryugu this week, and it wasn't just for random target practice. Hayabusa 2's mission includes collecting samples from the asteroid that can be returned to Earth and studied.

The bullet disturbed material on the surface of the asteroid, and Hayabusa 2 was able to collect that after touching down on it Friday.

The asteroid has a gravelly surface, rather than the dust that was expected. The samples won't be returned until Hayabusa has completed its mission and says goodbye to the asteroid in December.

In the meantime, Hayabusa 2 will try a couple more sample attempts. So the asteroid and the spacecraft have plenty of time to reconcile their differences -- or further antagonize each other -- before the probe's departure at the end of the year.

There's new stuff in the sky

Astronomers are always studying the sky, and sometimes, they find things in a delightful Marco Polo fashion. This week, scientists from around the world reported that their new radio sky survey detected hundreds of thousands of distant galaxies whose signal is just now reaching us after billions of light-years.

But researchers were also able to see black holes, to look at the evolution of clusters of galaxies and to measure magnetic fields. Radio astronomy helps to reveal what can't be found with optical light. And a supercomputer helped turn the data into high-resolution images in just a year, whereas a regular computer might have taken centuries.

Another research team used the Hubble Space Telescope to find a tiny inner moon around Neptune, dubbed Hippocamp. Voyager 2 found six inner moons of Neptune when it whizzed past in 1989, but it missed this little guy. It's OK, Voyager 2. It's only about 21 miles in diameter; by comparison, Neptune is 30,599 miles in diameter.

Hippocamp, now known as Neptune's smallest moon, is named for the sea monster from Greek mythology, said to have a fish's tail attached to a horse's body.

Unfortunately, it doesn't actually look like a hippocamp.

But it's probably a remnant chipped off of Proteus, the largest and outermost of Neptune's inner moons, which just happens to have a giant crater on it.

And in a spectacular discovery, a volunteer citizen scientist working with a NASA project has found the coldest, oldest-known white dwarf, and it's surrounded by rings of dust and debris.

A white dwarf is what's left after a sun-like star dies, and the remnant is usually Earth-size. This peculiar white dwarf, LSPM J0207+3331, is 145 light-years away in the Capricornus constellation.

And it's 3 billion years old, with a temperature of about 10,500 degrees Fahrenheit. It was initially much hotter, because white dwarfs cool slowly as they age. Dusty disks and rings had previously been found only around white dwarfs that were much younger than J0207.

So not only is it a really cool discovery -- made by Melina Thévenot of Germany, participating in the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project -- but it's a puzzle that astronomers will need to study further to understand.

And if that's not enough for you, remember that explosive gravitational wave event from August 2017? Or maybe you know it as GW170817. It's when scientists around the world witnessed two neutron stars colliding for the first time, creating gravitational waves, a gamma ray burst and even elements like gold.

At first, they weren't entirely sure about the material that shot out of this burst. Now, they say the data shows that a "so-called jet" of material expanded as fast as the speed of light, heading away from the event and into interstellar space.

Tiny 'harbinger of doom'

Look at this guy. To borrow my editor's great comment, "he looks like he should be wearing a top hat."

This is the recently discovered Moros intrepidus fossil, found in Utah and helping bridge the gap between small tyrannosaurs and what happened before they turned into the gigantic Tyrannosaurus rex.

Moros was only about 3 to 4 feet tall, compared with T. rex, which could be 15 feet tall. But don't let that fool you. This little guy was an excellent predator, lightweight and built for speed. Also, his name translates to "harbinger of doom."

"With a lethal combination of bone-crunching bite forces, stereoscopic vision, rapid growth rates, and colossal size, tyrant dinosaurs reigned uncontested for 15 million years leading up to the end-Cretaceous extinction -- but it wasn't always that way," said Lindsay Zanno, lead author of a new study and paleontologist at North Carolina State University, in a statement. "When and how quickly tyrannosaurs went from wallflower to prom king has been vexing paleontologists for a long time. The only way to attack this problem was to get out there and find more data on these rare animals."

Now try to get the mental image of a Tyrannosaurus rex in a suit wearing a crown out of your head. Or don't.

What really killed the dinosaurs?

Sorry to take you from the prom to the mass extinction so quickly -- even if Tyrannosaurus rex was basically the last giant predator who enjoyed a nice heyday before the end of times 66 million years ago.

So you've probably heard that an asteroid plowed into Earth 66 million years ago and a mass extinction event wiped out the dinosaurs. But scientists have often wondered if the asteroid was the only cause -- as if more hellfire was needed to snuff out the largest creatures to ever roam the Earth.

That other hellfire belongs to volcanoes, specifically the Deccan Traps in India, which erupted about the same time and kept on spewing for about a million years. Two studies published this week theorize that the asteroid and volcanic activity combined sealed the fate of the dinosaurs, although they get there in different ways.

Check out their work, which is really impressive. And if you get nostalgic, there's always a "Jurassic Park" marathon waiting for you.

Early humans sure liked eating monkeys and squirrels

Rain forests may be beautiful, but for a long time, scientists thought early humans avoided living in them because they didn't offer giant sources of protein like the big game hunting of the savanna and other open fields.

Boy, were they wrong, according to the cave in Sri Lanka full of burned and scraped monkey and squirrel bones. The cave's contents reveal that early humans were living there as long as 45,000 years ago. And they were smart enough to sustainably hunt their food of choice until about 4,000 years ago.

Squirrels and monkeys live in trees. They would have taken a lot of effort to hunt and capture, especially using the blow darts scientists believe early humans used. And squirrels and monkeys didn't yield much protein.

But early humans could use the monkey bones as tools to hunt more monkeys. And they did, based on all of the monkey bone tools found in the cave.

In order to keep their food source from perishing, they studied the monkeys habits and only killed prime adults. And the fact that they did so for so long without affecting the population shows how smart our ancestors were.

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Ashley Strickland

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