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A supermoon, surprising asteroids and a fossil treasure trove: This week in space and science

By Ashley Strickland, CNN | Posted - Mar 23rd, 2019 @ 12:41pm



CNN — This week, a supermoon dazzled skywatchers, two asteroid missions shared their initial and surprising results and 518 million-year-old fossils were found in China.

Astronomers also witnessed a space cannonball and discovered how bombastic meteors can be when they explode in the Earth's atmosphere.

And on Friday, NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Anne McClain performed a 6 ½-hour spacewalk to make some electrical updates on the outside of the International Space Station.

Here's all of the space and science news you missed this week.

Until next year, supermoon

A view of the supermoon over the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; Photo from CNN

On Wednesday, the third and final supermoon of the year brightened up the night sky.

March's full moon also happened on the same day as the spring equinox, welcoming in the season. The last time these two things happened on the same day was March 1981.

These two asteroids just became more interesting

Ryugu and Bennu are two asteroids, and they're the subjects of two different missions to study these time capsules of the early days of our solar system's formation. This week, early mission observations were released about both of them.

Spacecraft makes 'unexpected' discoveries about asteroid Bennu; Photo from CNN

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has only been orbiting the asteroid Bennu for a few months but mission scientists have already learned new details about the near-Earth asteroid that is 70 million miles away.

The greatest surprise of the mission happened only a few days in, when an unexpected observation signaled there was activity on Bennu, the researchers said.

The mission science team detected particle plumes ejecting off of the surface on January 6, followed by additional plumes over the last two months. That makes Bennu an active asteroid that is regularly ejecting material into space, which is rare. This is the first time scientists have had close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid's surface, the agency said.

They also found hydrated minerals are abundant on Bennu and they believe it's now somewhere between 100 million and1 billion years old -- much older than expected. Unfortunately, they also discovered that the asteroid is covered in large boulders, which will make a sample collection more tricky than previously believed.

Meanwhile, Japan's Hayabusa 2 space mission has been conducting similar observations of near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. It will also return a sample from the asteroid.

Both Bennu and Ryugu are extremely dark, spinning top-shaped asteroids that are covered in large boulders, but the latest findings show that Ryugu is a lot drier.

The finding is significant because all of Earth's water is thought to have come came from local asteroids, distant comets, and the nebula or dust cloud that became our sun. This casts some doubt on that theory.

While these early results are exciting, the researchers are looking forward to when samples are returned to Earth in 2020 from Ryugu and 2023 from OSIRIS-REx.

Meanwhile, those spinning-top asteroids will keep putting on a show for the spacecraft following them around.

New fossil find takes it back to the beginning

A newly discovered fossil site in China that dates back 518 million years is helping scientists to fill gaps in the fossil record and provide a clearer picture of some of the earliest animal ecosystems.

And let's just confirm that when you go that far back in the fossil record, life looks, well, pretty different.

Some of the fossils are comparable to their modern-day counterparts, like sponges, corals, jellyfish and other marine life. And then there were things that the researchers didn't even recognize. That's because the site contained more than 50% previously unknown species.

The discovery is comparable to other impressive sites like the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, discovered in 1909, Chengjiang in China and Emu Bay Shale in Australia. Burgess dates to 508 million years ago and includes well-preserved fossils, including soft bodies that show evidence of skin, eyes, gut and brains.

The sites are the gold standard for scientists piecing together the Cambrian Explosion about 540 million years ago, when an immensely diverse animal population suddenly appeared over a short time. Researchers have discovered more sites containing great records of the Cambrian Explosion in recent years, like the Qingjiang site.

To be clear, these look more like fossils trapped in stone, rather than mushy bits of really old alien-looking animals. But it's an incredible find shedding light on a crucial time in Earth's history.

M-m-m-m-m-m-meteor bomb

In December 2018, a fireball entered Earth's atmosphere and exploded 16 miles above the surface. And the resulting explosion released 10 times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

A meteor exploded in the Earth's atmosphere with 10 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb; Photo from CNN

Fireballs are bright meteors, and this one was the second most powerful to enter our atmosphere in 30 years -- the first happened in 2013 over Russia.

But because this happened over the Bering Sea, scientists are only just becoming aware of it now.

And this is exactly why NASA tracks near-Earth objects and sends missions to study asteroids. And as we learned recently, Hollywood got it wrong when they thought a maneuver like the one in "Armageddon" was going to work.

Cannonball in spaaaaace

What hurtles through space at 2.5 million miles an hour and could go between the Earth and the moon in six minutes? No, it's not an alien man from Krypton wearing a red cape and undies. It's a space cannonball, otherwise known as a pulsar, fired out of a supernova.

Pulsars are the very dense and rapidly spinning neutron stars that are left behind after a massive star explodes.

NASA recently tracked one, called the ever-memorable PSR J0002+6216, or J0002, back to where it came from. Conveniently, its tail was pointing back to the debris of a supernova called CTB 1.

"Thanks to its narrow dart-like tail and a fortuitous viewing angle, we can trace this pulsar straight back to its birthplace," said Frank Schinzel, a scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico. "Further study of this object will help us better understand how these explosions are able to 'kick' neutron stars to such high speed."

It's 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. And it looks really cool.

The CTB 1 supernova remnant resembles a ghostly bubble and the glowing trail is the pulsar; Photo from CNN

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Ashley Strickland

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