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NASA is going to slam a spacecraft into an asteroid. Things might get chaotic.

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NASA is going to slam a spacecraft into an asteroid. Things might get chaotic.


Led by Harrison Agrusa from the University of Maryland, researchers modeled how much DART might change the spin or rotation of Dimorphos by calculating how the momentum of the impact will alter the asteroid’s roll, pitch, and yaw. The results could be dramatic. “It could start tumbling and enter a chaotic state,” says Agrusa. “This was really quite a big surprise.”

The unexpected spinning poses some interesting challenges. It will add to the difficulty of landing on the asteroid, which ESA hopes to attempt with two small spacecraft on its Hera mission. It could also make future attempts to deflect an Earthbound asteroid more complicated, as any rotation can affect an asteroid’s path through space.

When DART slams into Dimorphos, the energy of the impact will be comparable to three tons of TNT exploding, sending thousands of pieces of debris spewing into space. Statler describes it as a golf cart traveling at 15,000 miles an hour smashing into the side of a football stadium. The force of the impact will not cause any immediate changes to Dimorphos’s spin, but within days things will start to change, according to Agrusa and his team.

Soon, Dimorphos will start to wobble very slightly. This wobble will grow and grow as the momentum from the impact throws the rotation of Dimorphos out of balance, with no friction in the vacuum of space to slow it down. Dimorphos may start to spin one way and another. It may start to rotate along its long axis, like a rotisserie. To an observer on Didymos looking into the sky, this seemingly sedate satellite will take on a new form—starting to swing wildly back and forth, its previously hidden sides now coming into view.

Within weeks, Dimorphos could spin so much that it enters a chaotic tumbling state where it is spinning uncontrollably around its axes. In more extreme scenarios the tidal lock with Didymos could break completely and Dimorphos might start flipping “head over heels,” says Agrusa.

Exactly what will happen will depend on a few things. Dimorphos’s shape will play an important part—if it’s more elongated rather than spherical, it’ll spin more chaotically. Radar observations so far suggest it is elongated, but we won’t know until just hours before DART hits, when it gets its first views of its small target. 

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The Download: toxic chemicals, and Russia’s cyberwar tactics

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The Download: toxic chemicals, and Russia’s cyberwar tactics


What are chemical pollutants doing to our bodies? It’s a timely question given that last week, people in Philadelphia cleared grocery shelves of bottled water after a toxic leak from a chemical plant spilled into a tributary of the Delaware River, a source of drinking water for 14 million people. And it was only last month that a train carrying a suite of other hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, unleashing an unknown quantity of toxic chemicals.

There’s no doubt that we are polluting the planet. In order to find out how these pollutants might be affecting our own bodies, we need to work out how we are exposed to them. Which chemicals are we inhaling, eating, and digesting? And how much? The field of exposomics, which seeks to study our exposure to pollutants, among other factors, could help to give us some much-needed answers. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

Read more:

+ The toxic chemicals all around us. Meet Nicolette Bugher, a researcher working to expose the poisons lurking in our environment and discover what they mean for human health. Read the full story.

+ Building a better chemical factory—out of microbes. Professor Kristala Jones Prather is helping to turn microbes into efficient producers of desired chemicals. Read the full story.

+ Microplastics are messing with the microbiomes of seabirds. The next step is to work out what this might mean for their health—and ours. Read the full story.

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The Download: sleeping in VR, and promising clean energy projects

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The Download: sleeping in VR, and promising clean energy projects


People are gathering in virtual spaces to relax, and even sleep, with their headsets on. VR sleep rooms are becoming popular among people who suffer from insomnia or loneliness, offering cozy enclaves where strangers can safely find relaxation and company—most of the time.

Each VR sleep room is created to induce calm. Some imitate beaches and campsites with bonfires, while others re-create hotel rooms or cabins. Soundtracks vary from relaxing beats to nature sounds to absolute silence, while lighting can range from neon disco balls to pitch-black darkness. 

The opportunity to sleep in groups can be particularly appealing to isolated or lonely people who want to feel less alone, and safe enough to fall asleep. The trouble is, what if the experience doesn’t make you feel that way? Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle

There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. 

But as we knock out the easy climate wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. 

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Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle

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Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle


The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.

As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world. 

There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.

Vaporized rocks

“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station. 

Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges. 

These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US. 

Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today. 

Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)

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