No, Elon Musk’s Neuralink startup doesn’t have tech to ‘build real Jurassic Park’ – CNET

jurassic-park-t-rex

Neuralink isn't building dinosaurs, but it's doing some cool brain experiments.

Universal Pictures

The last time we heard from Elon Musk's brain-implant startup, Neuralink, it had implanted a small, coin-size device in a pig's brain and listened in to the signals it produced. Musk said the implant was like "a Fitbit in your skull" during an August press conference last year, but the company was still a long way from bringing the product to market. 

So, it seemed a little strange to read, in a variety of publications Wednesday, that "Neuralink has the tech to build a real Jurassic Park." The comments, according to the New York Post, were attributable to Max Hodak, co-founder of Neuralink and were quickly traced back to a tweet.

"We could probably build Jurassic Park if we wanted to," Hodak tweeted on Saturday. "wouldn't be genetically authentic dinosaurs but 🤷. Maybe 15 years of breeding + engineering to get super exotic novel species," he continued.

The tweet, and a subsequent declaration about biodiversity, make no mention of Neuralink, but that didn't stop the speculation, presumably because of Hodak's use of the word "we." It appears Hodak was referring to humanity and not the company he co-founded, but you wouldn't know that from the reports.   

We reached out to Neuralink to confirm Hodak's comments but didn't hear back at the time of publication, presumably because the company has real science to work on, rather than field questions about impossible dinosaur resurrections.  

And it's pretty much impossible to resurrect a dinosaur. The science of bringing dinosaurs back from the dead isn't really as sound as Hodak makes it seem though. Even humanity would have a tough time building a Jurassic Park in the next 15 years. First, we'd need some DNA from the prehistoric tyrants and unlike in the film Jurassic Park, where the DNA is retrieved from mosquitoes in amber and fused with frog DNA, that information has completely degraded. 

However, more recently extinct animals, like the woolly mammoth, may be a good target for "de-extinction." We can still extract DNA from these creatures and could theoretically build and implant a mammoth embryo in a modern-day elephant. The question is: should we? Jurassic Park offers a pretty good reason not to, but mammoths aren't quite as bloodthirsty as Tyrannosaurus rex. 

As for Neuralink, the startup has produced two interesting press briefings in the last two years. In 2019, the Neuralink device debuted, and steady progress seemed to have been made in the following year, when the pig implants were revealed. But information is still scant: Musk and Neuralink have published one scientific paper, in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, back in October 2019.

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NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity: What you need to know before its first flight – CNET

Ingenuity takes flight on Mars in this NASA animation.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's wheeled rovers have revealed an incredible amount about Mars. From learning about the planet's wet history and discovering the chemistry of its soil and the puzzling presence of methane in its atmosphere, the rolling robots have been indispensable in painting a picture of one of Earth's closest neighbors. They are remarkable, but they can't cover a lot of ground -- slow movement is critical to prevent them from tumbling over a cliff or colliding with a rock. 

But imagine if they could fly. 

Strapping a set of wings to a robot on another planet would open up a whole new way to explore other worlds. "The ability to fly wherever you want, at great speed, for a closeup view without risk of damage from collision or fall, is a thrilling capability," says Alan Duffy, a professor in astrophysics at Swinburne University in Australia. 

That's exactly what NASA has done with Ingenuity, a tiny, lightweight rotorcraft originally scheduled to take flight on Mars on April 11, but since delayed till "no earlier than April 14." If it flies, it'll be the first time humans have achieved powered, controlled flight on another planet -- a Wright brothers moment in another part of the cosmos. 

There are significant challenges to flying on Mars, however, and Ingenuity has to contend with a planet that particularly enjoys killing spacecraft. Should it succeed in getting off the ground, it will pave the way for future missions, deeper in the cosmos.

Here's why Ingenuity is so ingenious.

Preflight checks

If you're wondering how NASA got a helicopter to Mars and feel like you haven't heard too much about it, it's probably because NASA's Perseverance rover stole all the limelight. Ingenuity is a "ride-along" mission and a tech demonstration. It isn't on Mars to perform any science. Rather, it's built to show that powered flight is possible on another world. 

Ingenuity was tucked away in the belly of Perseverance during the rover's long sojourn from Earth to Mars, which kicked off in July. The rover landed on the planet back in February, and Ingenuity was safe and sound from the harsh, cold Martian surface until April 4, when Perseverance carefully deposited the chopper onto the soil.

While on board Perseverance, Ingenuity was protected and powered by the rover's suite of instruments. But after it was dropped off, and Perseverance rolled away, Ingenuity was cold and alone -- quite literally. Mars temperatures plummet well below freezing at night, to around minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, Ingenuity showed it can cope with the cold when it survived its first night separated from its rover pal.

The relationship with Perseverance hasn't ended, though. When Ingenuity takes its first flight, it will be Perseverance that relays those messages back to Earth

On April 6, Ingenuity took its first photograph of Mars, a low-resolution, orange-and-brown snapshot of the surface. It's not much, but if you want to get technical, it's the first time a vehicle capable of flight has taken a photo of the red planet's surface, so that's pretty cool. 

On April 10, NASA said it was delaying Ingenuity's first flight till "no earlier than April 14," due to a safety alert during a test the previous day of the copter's rotors. During that test, "the command sequence controlling the test ended early due to a 'watchdog' timer expiration," the space agency said in a status update. "This occurred as it was trying to transition the flight computer from 'Pre-Flight' to 'Flight' mode."

NASA added that the watchdog timer "oversees the command sequence and alerts the system to any potential issues. It helps the system stay safe by not proceeding if an issue is observed."

The Ingenuity team is diagnosing the issue and will reschedule the rotor test based on its findings, the agency said, adding that the copter remains "safe and healthy."

The cabin doors are now closed

There are a ton of challenges to achieving flight on Mars, but the major one is the air

There's a stark difference in atmosphere between the red planet and Earth. The Martian atmosphere is incredibly thin compared with our own, so achieving lift is far more difficult. Ingenuity is designed to deal with this problem. While we've already called it everything from a chopper to a flier, a helicopter to a rotorcraft, the tech it most reminds me of is a drone. 

However, its blades are much larger than those for a similar-sized craft on Earth, and they spin at around 2,400 rpm -- six times faster than on an Earth-based craft. At this speed and size, Earth-based tests have shown Ingenuity should be able to get off the ground on Mars without issue.

Unlike a drone, though, no one is piloting the vehicle in real time. The Ingenuity team had to upload instructions to the craft well in advance and will then receive data back after it's made its flight. Ingenuity is designed to be very autonomous and to keep itself healthy during the communications delay between the two planets.  

Prepare for takeoff

Prior to Perseverance's landing in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, the Ingenuity team was looking for an "airfield" and surrounding "flight zone" -- a flat, mostly empty area on Mars' surface that won't jeopardize the safety of Ingenuity.

Fortunately, there was one basically next door to the landing site. "We began to realize we might have a really great airfield, right in front of our noses," said NASA's Håvard Fjær Grip, the chief pilot for Ingenuity. Grip says the team looked at "every rock and pebble" before deciding on home base for the helicopter.

Within 30 sols (about 31 Earth days), Ingenuity plans to make five flights, but the first is the most important. It will be a fairly simple flight.

The rotorcraft will take off, straight up, to an altitude of around three meters (around 10 feet) and hover in place for around 30 seconds. Then it will make a small turn, before coming down and landing again. During the flight, Ingenuity's eyes and brain will be working overtime, preprogrammed by the team to keep the craft safe. 

It will be snapping 30 images per second of the ground to understand where it is and to make any necessary trajectory changes -- around 500 times per second, according to Grip. This autonomy ensures Ingenuity won't be blown off course by a sudden Martian gust. 

A postflight briefing is expected to take place no earlier than Wednesday, April 14, and will be available to view on NASA TV.

Future missions

As NASA engineers have reiterated many times: Ingenuity is a "technology demonstration," just like the very first Mars rover, Sojourner, which rolled across the planet in 1997. 

In many ways, Ingenuity has already succeeded: It survived the journey to Mars, set itself up on the planet and survived its first night alone in the cold. Its first flight will be momentous, not just for Mars exploration but for exploration of our entire solar system. 

"If Ingenuity proves that we can successfully pilot aircraft on other planets, it will hugely expand the options for exploration in the future," says Jonti Horner, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Southern Queensland. 

Flight is a powerful tool for exploration. If robots can stay in the air, they'll be able to ascend mountainous regions quickly, to investigate cracks in hillsides, to fly over lakes or lakebeds and to move quickly to avoid danger. With the right equipment, they may be able to snatch samples and bring them back to a rolling robot, too. You can even imagine a Mars rover-rotorcraft combo in the future, allowing space agencies to scout their landing location more accurately and decide on the best place to roll to the following day. 

There are other missions -- and worlds -- that will benefit from Ingenuity's demo, too. 

Dragonfly will explore Saturn's moon, Titan.

NASA/JHU-APL

One such mission is NASA's Dragonfly, which Horner calls Ingenuity's "big sister," That mission will visit Titan, one of the most intriguing moons of Saturn. The moon is rich in organic matter, contains a nitrogen-rich atmosphere like Earth, and is home to massive methane lakes and storms. It may even contain signs of life, past or present.  

"Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission," says Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for the science mission directorate. It's a little more ambitious than Ingenuity, with the spacecraft containing all the necessary instruments to search for signs of life and to study the Selk impact crater, which is suspected to have once held liquid water. Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2027 and to reach Titan by 2034.

If Ingenuity gets off the ground, the dream of otherworldly flight will become a reality -- ushering in the next era of planetary space exploration.

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WHO study in Wuhan offers no definitive answers on coronavirus origins – CNET

A joint study into the origins of the coronavirus, conducted by experts with the World Health Organization and China, delivered a 316-page report Tuesday, detailing the complex, confusing origins of the pandemic but providing little definitive evidence as to how the coronavirus first emerged.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference Tuesday morning it "advances our understanding in important ways," but concluded "I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough."

The long-delayed report is based around a 28-day visit to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first COVID-19 cases were reported in 2019. It was carried out by a team of 34 experts, including 17 international experts led by the WHO's Peter Ben Embarek, and 17 experts from China. The visit took place in January and February this year, a full year after the virus emerged.

The findings in the expansive document were telegraphed by a press conference conducted on Feb. 9, in which researchers suggested SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, most likely jumped from a bat to another animal before infecting humans. It also reiterates the stance taken by study members during a press conference in February that a laboratory incident is an "extremely unlikely" pathway for the coronavirus to have entered the human population. 

But the dense, technical report was never going to be a watershed moment in the origins discussion. 

It was designed to be the first phase of a two-phase study, in which international researchers would collaborate with Chinese counterparts to review the early data surrounding the pandemic and plan for a more in-depth mission. Embarek himself has said this wasn't an investigation.

It has also been dogged by questions around interference from Beijing and conflicts of interest in members chosen to be part of the international research team. Ghebreyesus acknowledged on Tuesday the difficulties the team had in "accessing raw data" from China and hoped future studies "include more timely and comprehensive data sharing." 

While the question "where did the coronavirus come from?" remains unanswered, the report details the four scenarios the team propose for its emergence:

  1. It directly passed from an animal, such as a bat, to a human
  2. It passed from a bat through another species, before infecting humans
  3. It was introduced through frozen food and the cold-chain
  4. Or it emerged from a laboratory incident
pathways.png

The pathways to emergence diagram in the report, showing the various potential origins of the pandemic.

Joint WHO-China Study

Simplifying things, the report interrogates two opposing locations for SARS-CoV-2's emergence: a wet market and a laboratory. Other global locations are also suggested, but the brunt of the report focuses on how the virus may have emerged via wildlife or frozen food sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a wet market in Wuhan visited by some of the earliest known people with COVID-19, and other markets in the city that sell fresh meat and fish. 

Little data is provided for the opposing scenario, a laboratory incident, but there are interesting takeaways from the 193-page annexes, detailing presentations by researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and extensive sampling of wildlife in different parts of China. We've highlighted some of the key findings below.

Market pressures

Contact with wild animals and livestock can initiate the spillover of viruses from animal to human.

The report discusses much of the sampling and distribution of cases in the Huanan Seafood market and suggests further work is required in studying the supply chains that fed into it (and other Wuhan markets).

Huanan was closed on Jan. 1, 2020, and disinfected, with China's CDC collecting environmental and animal samples on the same day. The WHO-China visit occurred on Jan. 31, 2021, but report the data hasn't yet been analyzed in depth by the joint team due to lack of time. 

The researchers aimed to understand how the virus arrived in, and moved through, Huanan by exploring molecular data, epidemiological data and sampling of animals. Although the Huanan market has been the focus of inquiry, only 28% of early cases had been exposed to just this market, and the very first case had no exposure to the market. 

The attention on the market has largely been on the animals traded there and the wildlife brought in. Several species are known to harbor coronaviruses and one of them may have carried the virus into the market. At least 10 animal stalls sold animals or products including snakes, chickens, ducks, deer, badgers, rabbits, bamboo rats, crocodiles and hedgehogs. Other products were sold frozen and imported from areas across China.

There are several key points regarding the testing data:

  • There were 718 environmental samples taken in the Huanan market, and 110 taken from the drainage system. Of those samples, 64 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
  • There's no evidence of animal infections were discovered from the 188 animals tested. 
  • There's no evidence of the sale of live mammals was found in 2019 or during the 2021 visit. 
  • Residents interviewed by the team reported never seeing any live animals sold at the market.
  • Extensive testing of animal samples in the market and in supply farms all tested negative.
  • There's no evidence for association between early cases and specific products sold in the market. 
  • It's impossible to tell if a vendor or a customer brought the virus into the market.
  • Over 1,100 bats in Hubei province were tested for SARS-CoV-2 and similar viruses, but none tested positive.

On the evidence presented, there appears little reason to suggest Huanan market was the birthplace of the pandemic. With animal samples and vendor suppliers turning up zero positive cases, there's no obvious route for the virus to get into the marketplace. This is the same conclusion that Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, came to in May 2020.

Another theory, propagated by Beijing in recent months, suggests cold-chain and frozen food products may have brought SARS-CoV-2 into Wuhan. Flimsy evidence has shown the coronavirus can survive on these surfaces, but there's no compelling example of the cold-chain resulting in COVID-19 infections outside of China. 

In all, the report states "no firm conclusion" can be drawn about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak. This doesn't rule out a jump from bat to human, however. Such a leap may have occurred elsewhere or in animals yet to be sampled.

At a seminar in Sydney on Wednesday, Edward Holmes, a virologist from the University of Sydney, suggested both raccoon dogs and minks, which weren't tested in and around Huanan, were good candidates for the missing link the virus needed to jump from bats to humans. Though the 2021 team found no evidence they were in the market, a trip by Holmes in 2014 did reportedly find raccoon dogs at Huanan.

Lab questions

Though the majority of scientists believe the virus leapt from animals to humans and the research team dubbed a laboratory incident "extremely unlikely," there is a growing number of scientists who think SARS-CoV-2 could have accidentally been released from a lab in Wuhan.

The focus in this hypothetical scenario has been on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory in the city known to harbor and study a large collection of coronaviruses. 

The research team visited the WIV on Feb. 3, 2021, but that visit isn't mentioned in the final report. Details of the trip can be found over four pages in one of the report's annexes. "They clearly didn't give this a lot of thought," says Nikolai Petrovsky, a vaccine developer from Flinders University in Australia.

Researchers at the WIV, including Shi Zhengli, have been sampling bats across China for over a decade and studying the coronaviruses that lurk within the flying mammals. The research team weren't given access to any data in the laboratory but were provided with an "extensive scientific report" by Shi.

A few key details about the trip show:

  • The WIV collected 19,000 samples, with 2,481 testing positive for coronaviruses. 
  • A claim all fieldwork is done with full PPE, though this has been contested.
  • Staff at the WIV, including director Yuan Zhiming, professor Wang Yanyi and virologist Shi Zhengli were questioned, but no raw data was seen.
  • Yuan Zhiming emphasized the international team's visit could help to defuse some of the conspiracy theories that were circulating.
  • Staff at the WIV working on coronavirus research all tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in April 2019 and March 2020.
  • A database of coronavirus data, taken offline by the WIV, was attacked more than 3,000 by hackers and taken offline. It remains offline.
  • Yuan Zhiming "refuted categorically" the rumors of a leak.

One of the most pertinent points is the WIV's testing of staff members for SARS-CoV-2. No staff member tested positive for antibodies to the virus, an indicator they had carried the virus. That makes it unclear how a WIV member could have carried the virus out into Wuhan. These tests, according to the report, were performed in March 2020. How quickly antibodies disappear is still up for debate, but recent studies have suggested they persevere for months and, thus, should be detectable at this time.  

Shi also provided information to the team on a spate of mysterious pneumonia cases in mineshaft workers in 2012. The workers cleaned a cave where SARS-CoV-2's closest ancestor, RaTG13, was discovered by the WIV team. Three of the workers died.

The WHO-China team state that, "according to the WIV experts," the miners' mysterious pneumonia was likely explained by fungal infections rather than a coronavirus. This goes against information uncovered by independent researchers where doctors examining the miners suggested they had SARS-like symptoms.

What's next?

Although the report lists a laboratory incident as "extremely unlikely" and deems further study unnecessary, the WHO doesn't see it the same way.

"As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table," Ghebreyesus said Tuesday. 

Prior to the report's publication, a small group of researchers and scientists, known as the Paris group, published an open letter pre-empting the findings and calling for a "full and unrestricted international forensic investigation" into COVID-19's origins. The group suggests the WHO-China mission had structural limitations making it impossible to fully examine the pandemic's origin. 

They were joined in their concern on Tuesday by 14 governments across the world, including the US, Australia, Canada, Japan and the UK. The nations expressed concern about the transparency in the WHO-China study. 

"We voice our shared concerns that the international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples," the statement reads. 

During a press briefing on Tuesday, team leader Embarek cited difficulties in obtaining raw data but said the international researchers "were never pressured to remove critical elements in our report."  Others point out a double-standard. The same nations would likely be reluctant to "open their drawers," says Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales.

Such assurances are unlikely to see the debate around the coronavirus origins end any time soon, however. Jamie Metzl, co-author of the Paris Group open letter, says the team will very likely release another open letter soon. "It's my personal view that the best next step is a new resolution at the World Health Assembly," he notes.

The Assembly, which takes place in May, will likely see discussion around the studies proposed by the WHO-China team that need to take place in phase two. The report suggests further investigation of the supply chain to the Huanan market and other markets in Wuhan is required, in addition to expanding the "geographic range" of surveillance. 

***
Want to get in touch about COVID-19's origin story? Email the author.
***

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First black hole image gets an upgrade, revealing extreme magnetic fields – CNET

Artist's impression of the extreme environment at the center of galaxy Messier 87

An artist's impression of the extreme environment at the center of galaxy Messier 87. A huge cosmic jet streams out of the central black hole.

ESO/M. Kornmesser

When the Event Horizon Telescope captured the very first image of a black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy around 53 million light-years from Earth, astronomers and scientists were delighted. The breakthrough snap had unlocked a powerful new way to study the behemoth cosmic beasts and put some of the most interesting astrophysics theories to the test

The supermassive black hole at the center of Messer 87, dubbed M87*, has slowly been giving up its secrets as astrophysicists have combed through the huge amount of data generated by the EHT. On Wednesday, a few more secrets were unearthed as members of the EHT Collaboration reveal new images of the black hole in polarized light.

In a suite of new papers, the collaboration details new breakthrough images, which provide critical information about the magnetic fields immediately surrounding the black hole and those further from Messier 87's chaotic center. It's the first time a team has been able to measure polarization right up close to the edge of a black hole.

"The newly published polarized images are key to understanding how the magnetic field allows the black hole to 'eat' matter and launch powerful jets," said Andrew Chael, an astrophysicist at the Princeton University Center for Theoretical Science and member of the EHT Collaboration.

But what exactly is polarization, and why does it matter?

Well, light is weird. It's made up of electric and magnetic fields, vibrating in all sorts of directions. Polarized light is only vibrating in one direction. Most light is non-polarized when it leaves a star or the huge, bright disc of gas and debris around a black hole, but its interactions with dust, plasma and magnetic fields can cause it to polarize. Detecting polarization then provides a signature of the environment around a black hole like M87*. 

The first black hole image provided a kind of blurry Eye of Sauron, a ring of orange and yellow light around a black spot. The light emanates from a disc of debris and material immediately surrounding the invisible black hole. Some of this matter slips into the black hole, never to be seen again, but other material is blasted out at right angles, deep into space in what is known as a "cosmic jet."

M87's jet of matter is ejected at nearly the speed of light and extends almost 5,000 light-years into space. But how it forms remains a mystery.

oldandnew

The first image of the black hole (left) and the new image, in polarized light (right).

EHT Collaboration

The new observations provide a potential explanation. 

"The observations suggest that the magnetic fields at the black hole's edge are strong enough to push back on the hot gas and help it resist gravity's pull," according to Jason Dexter, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder and coordinator of the EHT Theory Working group. "Only the gas that slips through the field can spiral inwards to the event horizon."

The magnetic fields closest to the black hole may be so extreme that they're blasting matter away from the edge and focusing it into the huge jet observed emanating from Messier 87.  

eso2105d

This is the jet emanating from the center of Messier 87. The yellow lines in the image indicate the magnetic fields present in the jet, which extends around 6,000 light-years into space.

ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Goddi et al.

The Event Horizon Telescope is not a single telescope, but a series of eight Earth-based telescopes located across the globe. It's a "virtual telescope," as big as the Earth, that captures the light escaping from around M87*, providing the kind of resolution required to resolve these features, even though it lies millions of light-years away. 

One particular telescope that forms part of the collaboration, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, also provided a stunning look at the black hole's jet in polarized light, displaying the magnetic field lines (right).

It also observed Sgr A*, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and a dozen other supermassive black holes, finding that extremely bright beasts with jets pointing directly at the Earth (known as "blazars") were very strongly polarized, which the researchers hypothesize is likely because of the direction they face.

The first image of a black hole wowed, but there are plenty more mysteries to be uncovered. The EHT will provide further opportunities to study the regions closest to M87* and Sgr A* as more observatories are added and the network is upgraded. 

"We expect future EHT observations to reveal more accurately the magnetic field structure around the black hole and to tell us more about the physics of the hot gas in this region," said Jongho Park, an astrophysicist at Taipei's Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics and member of the EHT collaboration.

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Inside Japan’s daring 10-year mission to visit ancient asteroid Ryugu – CNET

In a gray camouflage tee and blue denim jeans, Masaki Fujimoto is dressed all too casually for a man about to make history. Queen's Don't Stop Me Now has been playing on repeat, in his head, for weeks. One line is particularly prophetic for the 56-year-old astrophysicist.

"I'm burning through the sky…"

In less than 48 hours, a 16-inch-wide steel capsule will do just that, rocketing through the atmosphere before unfurling a parachute and gently landing in a sparsely populated area of the Australian outback. Locked inside is ancient cargo -- pieces of a 4.6 billion-year-old near-Earth asteroid collected by Hayabusa2, the star spacecraft in the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency fleet.

Over the past six years, Hayabusa2 has achieved an extraordinary engineering triumph, filled with exhilarating firsts. It visited the dark, enigmatic Ryugu, an asteroid orbiting between Earth and Mars, and landed hopping robots on its surface. It imaged the exterior of the asteroid in exquisite detail and blasted a hole in its side with a copper cannonball. But the mission's masterstroke was sampling material from that wound it created in Ryugu's side -- the first time a spacecraft has snatched rock from beneath an asteroid's surface. 

The spacecraft's achievements are some of the most valuable in the history of deep space exploration, akin to NASA's feats of landing rovers on Mars or exploring Pluto and its moons up close. On a smaller budget than NASA's, with a much smaller team, Japan wrote its way into space history. Yet for the mission to be considered a complete success, the team must land Hayabusa2's sample capsule safely back on solid ground.

Fujimoto, the deputy director general of JAXA's Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science, is responsible for bringing the spacecraft and its samples home. Trained as a theoretical physicist, he's leading the sample capsule recovery from the ground in Australia, overseeing nearly 80 scientists and engineers who have descended on the tumbledown outback town of Woomera. 

Flat, ochre plains stretch for miles. The closest town is two hours away. Few places are as desolate, and yet as accessible, as Woomera. 

The perfect place to drop an asteroid sample.

Hayabusa2's journey has been near flawless to date, but JAXA's runsheet never included "global pandemic." Travel restrictions forced Fujimoto to rewrite sample retrieval plans in April 2020, cutting the recovery team in half and mandating a quarantine period of 21 days for team members traveling to Woomera. 

"It's been a very intense eight months," he says.

On Dec. 4, 2020, just over a day before the sample's scheduled return, Fujimoto fronts a press conference in Woomera, discussing the mission. Over the past three weeks, he's hardly slept, but the only hint he's tired is a cappuccino he cradles in his hand. He takes a sip. "I don't think you can sleep in my position," he tells me.

Despite his scientific sensibilities, Fujimoto believes fate is guiding the asteroid sample back to Earth. Strange coincidences throughout the vehicle's six-year journey, he says, demonstrate this theory. Signs the mission is destined for success. 

The strangest of them all? On the night Hayabusa2's sample capsule comes careening back to Earth, the Woomera Theatre, which has 500 seats and only one screen, is scheduled to show Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. 

The Woomera Theatre was set to play the Rami Malek-led Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, just hours before the sample capsule's return.

Jackson Ryan/CNET

I. Keep Yourself Alive

Hayabusa2's journey began 18 years ago with its predecessor, Hayabusa. 

The original 2003 mission put JAXA on the world stage, highlighting its engineering prowess. The first asteroid sample-return mission ever attempted, Hayabusa was designed to travel to an irregular, slug-shaped body known as 4660 Nereus, briefly touch down on its surface, steal away pieces of rock and ferry them back to Earth. 

The thinking back then, Fujimoto says, was to perform a feat of cosmic exploration NASA "would never dare" attempt, but the mission was plagued by problems almost as soon as it launched. 

"Hayabusa was a very challenging mission," says Saiki Takanao, a mission engineer with JAXA. Its initial launch was delayed, forcing it to change targets to a bean-shaped asteroid named Itokawa. Then, during its cruise phase, it was hit by a massive solar flare -- during a year of hellacious sun activity -- disrupting its solar cells and decreasing the efficiency of its engines. It arrived at Itokawa three months behind schedule, and an attempted landing proved disastrous when a leak in the spacecraft's thrusters reduced its ability to manage its orientation. It spun out of control. Communication was lost. 

The team tried everything to locate the spacecraft. Junichiro Kawaguchi, the JAXA scientist who led the mission, even remembers visiting a small shrine, about five minutes walk from mission control, to ask for divine intervention. "Parents used to go to that shrine and pray their kid will come back," Fujimoto says. 

Within weeks, the spacecraft pinged home. 

Hayabusa cheated death, but two of its engines were busted. Data showed the spacecraft only glanced the surface of the asteroid and likely contained mere flecks of dust within the sample capsule. Clever engineering workarounds allowed the team to set course for Earth, but Hayabusa was headed for more misery. A third engine blew out on the way back.

It limped home three years late, ejected its sample capsule and slammed into the atmosphere. In its final moments, the spacecraft showered the skies over Woomera with thousands of fireballs. As the final sparks winked out, Hayabusa's mission came to a close. JAXA was not deterred by the original mission's problems, and plans for a sequel were already in motion. It would use Hayabusa as a starting point and visit an entirely new asteroid.

But if it was to succeed, the team would have to improve its futuristic propulsion system in just three years, half the time it had to build Hayabusa. 

II. Under Pressure

Ion engines appear to function as if by magic.

The complex wizardry that makes them work is officially known as "electric propulsion" and involves a mix of magnetic and electric fields, gas and plasma. But boil it down, and ion engines are essentially particle pinball machines strapped to the back of a spacecraft. Inside them, electrons collide with atoms to produce charged ions. These ions are pushed out of the engine at speed by a sustained electric field at the rear, delivering a very small amount of thrust. 

Unlike typical chemical engines, which use extreme amounts of fuel rapidly and deliver huge amounts of thrust in one big, violent burst, ion engines are designed to be used for tens of thousands of hours. They require a comparatively tiny amount of fuel. "If you need to do it fast, you use a chemical rocket," says Nathan Brown, an aerospace engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "If you want to do it cheaply and efficiently, you use electric propulsion."

JAXA's only option with the Hayabusa missions was cheap and efficient. The agency operates on a budget roughly 5% of NASA's, with a team about one-tenth the size. The budget for Hayabusa2 is about one-third of NASA's for Osiris-Rex, an asteroid sample return mission the US agency launched in 2016

Though troubled, Hayabusa's ion engines, designed and built in house by now-ISAS director general Hitoshi Kuninaka and his team, provided a solid foundation for Hayabusa2. But the team was constantly under pressure. "We were behind schedule a lot of the time," says Ryudo Tsukizaki, a JAXA engineer.

Hayabusa2's engines would need to help carry the spacecraft 1.75 billion miles to reach its destination. Kazutaka Nishiyama, a JAXA engineer who led the ion engine team, says it was critical to increase the lifespan of the engines. Three of Hayabusa's engines failed at around 10,000 hours -- 14 months -- due to a critical component of the engine known as a "neutralizer." Tinkering with the neutralizer provided the necessary improvements to the lifespan. 

At the ISAS laboratory in Japan, an Earth-bound twin of the Hayabusa2's ion engine system is still being tested in a vacuum chamber today. When I talked to Nishiyama in October 2020, it had been switched on for 67,000 hours (seven and a half years). The early results of the test imbued the team with renewed conviction. 

Hayabusa2 launched on Dec. 3, 2014, from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. By the time launch day rolled around, the stress and pressure of ion engine development had all but faded. "We were very confident," says JAXA engineer Tsukizaki. For large parts of the mission, it cruised through the dark, lit by the aqua glow of its ion thrusters and dim light from the sun. Unlike its predecessor, it had a faultless sojourn, marked only by an occasional wave of X-rays washing over the spacecraft and periodically stopping the engines. 

But when Hayabusa2 left Earth, it was headed to an asteroid without an official name. Its provisional designation, 1999 JU3, merely referred to the date and time of its discovery. The rock was a mystery.

"The asteroid is a new world," says Yuichi Tsuda, the project manager of Hayabusa2. "Before getting there, we do not know anything about it." 

In 2015, the team at JAXA put out a call to the Japanese public to name the rock. From 7,336 entries, the selection committee settled on one.

Ryugu.

III. The Dragon Palace

According to an ancient Japanese folktale, some 1,500 years ago, the fisherman Urashima Taro pushed his boat out into the Sea of Japan, under a soft blue sky. Taro drifted on the waves for hours, waiting to hook a red bream or bonito. The other villagers thought of him as kindhearted but most believed him lazy and luckless. He often returned to shore empty-handed as the summer sun sank beneath the horizon.

But on this summer morning, Taro's fortunes reversed. His rod stirred, clattering against the boat. A catch! Excitedly, Taro drew the line, but as he reeled in the prize, he realized it wasn't a fish he had hooked. It was a turtle.

Taro delicately removed the line from the creature's mouth and returned it to the sea with a gentle prayer. He placed his hands behind his head and lay down, dozing off, the sun's heat prickling his skin. 

As he slept, a beautiful woman rose out of the sea. She moved as if carried by the wind, her long, black hair caught in a zephyr, crimson and blue robes trailing her in waves. Gliding toward the boat, she woke Taro with a soft touch, whispering to him.

"Don't be afraid," she said. "I am Princess Otohime. Today you showed me great kindness when you set me free from your hook. My father, the Dragon King of the Sea, sent me to you. He wishes for you to attend his palace beneath the waves. There, you may take me as your wife if you wish and we will live happily forever."

Urashima Taro agreed to go with the Princess to the Dragon Palace, Ryugu, an ornate castle made of coral and sand. There he met the Dragon King and married Otohime. In the enchanted land, he lived in an endless summer for three years.

By the fourth year, he grew restless. He'd fallen in love with Otohime, but began to worry about his elderly parents, alone at home. When he informed Otohime of his desire to return to them, she was crestfallen. She attempted to dissuade Taro from leaving but ultimately agreed to let him go, offering him a small treasure box, a tamatebako, tied with a silk string.

"If you wish to see me again, you must never open this," she told him. Taro nodded, agreeing he would never so much as loosen the string. At this, he was whisked from the castle under the sea back to his boat, bobbing in the Sea of Japan. The sun was descending. He glided back into shore.

As he disembarked and stood upon the beach, his heart filled with doubt. 

The village had changed. The Shinto temple he visited as a boy had been rebuilt with a new facade. The mountainside had been cleared of its trees. There were more houses than he remembered. The fisherfolk glanced skeptically at Taro as he bounced between houses, hoping to find his home. But he could not. Finally, an old man with a walking stick came by, and Taro asked where he might find the home of the Urashima family.

The old man laughed. "Do you not know the story of Urashima Taro?" he started. "The fisherman disappeared 400 years ago. Everybody says he drowned. His family is buried in the old graveyard."

Taro rushed to the graveyard. The tombstones of his family appeared decrepit and eaten by moss. A monument to his own death stood, crumbling, by their side. His parent's names were barely legible. At this, he believed himself to be the victim of some cruel illusion and returned to the beach, tamatebako in hand. 

In desperation, he tore the silk string off the box and opened it.

Immediately, he was engulfed by a white fog as cold as the ocean. He cried out, knowing he would never see the Princess Otohime or the Dragon Palace ever again. The ghastly mist soared out to sea. Taro, on the shore, watched it fade into the tender blue sky, disappearing against the clouds. 

Then, the burden of 400 years set upon his body all at once. His hair grayed, then fell out. His face drooped, his spine curled, his teeth dropped into the sand. 

IV. Now I'm Here

Asteroid Ryugu is nothing like its namesake.

Photos snapped by Hayabusa2 as it approached the rock showed a featureless gray diamond against the dark; a milky splotch on a black curtain. But when the spacecraft arrived on June 27, 2018, and moved within 12 miles of Ryugu's surface, its cameras captured every dip, bend and curve of its face. The team was shocked. 

An image of Ryugu, taken by Hayabusa2's ONC-W1 camera on June 13, 2018, as the spacecraft began its approach.

JAXA

It was no palace. It was a wasteland. Strewn with mammoth boulders and pockmarked by craters, Ryugu was immediately deemed "unfriendly" by members of the science team. "It was beyond our imagination," says Tsuda, project manager on the mission. "It's a really hopeless terrain."

Ryugu is what's known as a "rubble pile," a clotted mass of rock bound together by gravity. It likely formed when two large bodies collided in the earliest epoch of the solar system, some 4.5 billion years ago. The explosive impact would have showered space with debris. Over time, gravity pulled the wreckage together, forming Ryugu. It's been wandering in the orbit between Mars and Earth ever since. 

Asteroids aren't considered sexy. They're dull, bumpy boulders traveling through an abyss. They're often maligned; we only really care for them when we think they might collide with the Earth. This is unfair. Asteroids are some of the most valuable resources in our solar system.

"Missions like Hayabusa and Hayabusa2, and Osiris-Rex, are a first step towards deflecting asteroids, and also mining them," says Jonti Horner, an astrophysicist at the University of Southern Queensland. Asteroid mining is too expensive to be feasible today, but demonstrating that samples can be gathered and returned from distant space rocks could lead to a greener, near-unlimited resource of Earth metals like copper, nickel and platinum. A similar process, Horner says, might help change the trajectory of an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth. 

"One of the ways we could deflect it would be to send spacecraft there, land on the surface, and start digging bits off and firing those bits into space -- in a carefully calculated direction," he says.

Ryugu, the Dragon Palace, captured by Hayabusa2's ONC-W1 camera on June 30, 2018. 

JAXA

But asteroids aren't just destinations to visit, mine or move. They are also records of truly ancient history. 

Rocks like Ryugu could hold clues to the evolution of the solar system and even the evolution of life on Earth. Observing Ryugu for over a decade, scientists learned it was a "C-type" asteroid rich in carbon, containing some of the oldest and most pristine material we know of, from a time when planets were only just beginning to form. They are believed to harbor water ice and organic compounds, making them "potentially important for supplying the basic ingredients for life on Earth and other planets," says Simon Turner, a geochemist at Macquarie University in Australia.

JAXA would be the first agency to visit a C-type asteroid and sample rock from its surface. But the team quickly realized just how problematic that surface would be.

V. Spread Your Wings

If you want to tango with an asteroid, you have to have a really big dance floor. 

"We needed a 100-meter-diameter flat area," says Tsuda, "but there's no such space on the surface of Ryugu." He was acutely aware of how things could go wrong, having worked on the first Hayabusa mission.

Hayabusa2 performed a touchdown rehearsal in September 2018, a month before the first landing operation was scheduled to occur. It approached Ryugu slowly, scanning the surface with a laser that gauges altitude. At a height of 600 meters, it stopped descending. The spacecraft had a memory lapse, losing track of the distance to the surface. To save itself, it autonomously backed away. After reviewing the issue, the team decided on postponing the first touchdown. They needed to find a good landing spot. 

Scientists scoured images of Ryugu's surface, measuring the size of shadows cast by boulders and pebbles to estimate height. Tsuda thinks the science team counted 10,000 or more rocks to estimate the "bumpiness" of the terrain. After a week, the team located a safe area, dubbed L08-B, that was free from debris -- but it was one-fifth the size they required.

Tsuda reasoned that the team would have to rethink its strategy altogether. They would now perform a "pinpoint touchdown" method and, Takanao says, had to "study very, very hard" to pull it off.  

JAXA members Hirotaka Sawada (left) and Satoru Nakazawa (right) in the Sagamihara control room during touchdown rehearsal on Sept. 11, 2018.

JAXA

Originally, Hayabusa2 planned to drop a softball-sized, reflective marker to the surface during the touchdown operation and then follow it to the surface. But the team reasoned that if it dropped the marker a few months prior to touchdown, that would provide Hayabusa2 with a beacon it could use as a guide, like a lighthouse shepherding a ship to shore. 

Fortunately, Hayabusa2 had already proved itself a master marksman. It had deployed two hopping rovers, Hibou and Owl, to Ryugu's surface, along with a third robotic scout, Mascot, developed by the German Aerospace Center and France's National Centre for Space Studies. The box-shaped hoppers were the first spacecraft to image an asteroid from the surface and measure properties never considered before. When it came time to land the target marker, the operation proceeded without fault.

Although the successes were mounting, the reason for visiting Ryugu was to sample it. "Without a successful touchdown, we could not go beyond Hayabusa," says Tsuda. Touchdown was all he could think about. He wasn't getting much sleep, he says. In late October 2018, the team dropped the target marker without issue. Two more touchdown rehearsals occurred in the new year, and the pinpoint method worked flawlessly. Finally, the team was ready.

With the sun rising over mission control in Sagamihara on Feb. 21, 2019, Tsuda donned his off-white Hayabusa2 mission jacket, and the team began its operation. The control room was calm. Expectant. But as they performed final checks on Hayabusa2 before descent, the mission was thrown into chaos.

Hayabusa2 was not where it was supposed to be.

VI. Get Down, Make Love

The distance between Earth and Hayabusa2, floating above Ryugu, is about 210 million miles. Orders, uploaded from Japan, take about 20 minutes to reach the spacecraft. It's programmed to perform operations autonomously and, if something goes wrong, there's no opportunity to correct on the fly. 

When JAXA found Hayabusa2 was not in position to start its descent, the touchdown plan had to be reworked once again. "We had to delay the start of the descent by five hours," says Tsuda. The slight delay might not seem significant, but in that time the team essentially reprogrammed Hayabusa2's guidance systems for the operation. 

The "last hardship," as Tsuda calls it, changed the atmosphere in the room, but only slightly. The team quickly discovered a timing error had caused the mishap. They'd trained hard for these exact scenarios, running simulations hundreds of times on the ground. Tsuda's confidence and anxiety coalesced in the frenzied five-hour pause.

Finally, just after midday on Feb. 21, the touchdown operation was declared a "go." The new commands had been uploaded. The fate of Hayabusa2 rested solely in the spacecraft's hands. It descended. 

Dozens of members crowded around a wall-size projection, in the control room, providing a readout of data streaming back from Hayabusa2. There was no live video, so the team followed the spacecraft's Doppler data: Against a gray table, drawn like a graph in Excel, they waited for a red line to appear -- a sign the spacecraft had survived its encounter with Ryugu and was moving away from the surface.

Takanao Saiki (front) and Yuichi Tsuda embrace.

JAXA

The pressure was huge, Takanao, the engineer, says. As the team waited, Sakanao interlaced his fingers, as if in prayer, staring at the screen. Almost 25 hours after JAXA began the operation, the thin, red line blinked into existence on the screen. They'd done it. Hayabusa2 was not equipped with cameras inside the sample capsule, but data streaming back from the spacecraft showed it had fired its projectile and picked up a bucketful of material, storing it away for the return journey. 

Applause broke out. Tsuda and Takanao high-fived. Team members embraced. The muted celebrations might have seemed strange to those used to watching broadcasts from NASA control rooms; energetic displays of relief and joy overwhelming team members. That wasn't the JAXA way. Tsuda recalled the feeling as one of "pure pleasure" and surprise. "We actually did that?" he asked himself, as other scientists wrapped him in fleeting hugs.

Hayabusa2 had done what Hayabusa could not. It had retrieved innumerable treasures from the ancient space rock. The team nicknamed the touchdown site tamatebako.

With its treasure box tucked safely away, the spacecraft could have waited the year out, analyzing Ryugu from orbit until it was time to return home. JAXA wanted to go one better. 

VII. Stone Cold Crazy

One of Hayabusa2's major upgrades was the addition of a bomb.

Strapped to the underside of the spacecraft was an explosive known as the Small Carry-on Impactor that JAXA scientists, including Takanao, had designed for Hayabusa2 to drop on Ryugu to create an artificial crater and allow the team to sample material from beneath the asteroid's surface. But the team agonized over one key decision: Should they use it?

A second touchdown was a risky operation. Would JAXA take a chance on losing the ancient cargo it'd already captured to perform another risky touchdown and nab this pristine material? There was great uncertainty within the team.

Fujimoto says there were many "interesting" conversations leading up to the operation, describing heated debates about whether it was worth the risk. Tsuda notes that the first touchdown was "mandatory" for the mission's success, but the second touchdown was "the first time we purely pursued the scientific value."

It wasn't necessary to extract the first subsurface sample from an asteroid, but the team's scientists wanted to try. The material could unravel some of the secrets of C-type asteroids. For Fujimoto, not trying to collect the subsurface sample was akin to revealing the team wasn't confident in itself. He didn't want to risk "getting that reputation," he says. Eventually, a consensus was reached: They would go for it.

On April 5, 2019, a five-pound copper disc was volleyed from the SCI at a speed of 2 kilometers per second. It collided with Ryugu's side and sprayed rock across its body, leaving a scar on the surface about 32 feet wide and six feet deep. "This exposed subsurface material around the artificial crater," Tsuda says. 

The SCI departing Hayabusa2 en route to bombing Ryugu. 

JAXA

Scientists could pick practically anywhere safe on the surface for Hayabusa2's first landing. But for the second, there were no options. "To collect subsurface materials, we must land near the artificial crater," says Shota Kikuchi, a JAXA engineer who helped plot the second landing. But the team did get "really lucky," according to Yuri Shimaki, a post-doctoral engineer at ISAS, because the SCI hit at such an angle that Hayabusa2 could retrieve an abundance of ejected material. Not before a lot more training, though.

The engineering and science teams simulated touchdown operations from the mission control room on Earth, running through hundreds of scenarios. One team member would be assigned the role of "God," tasked with simulating the entire second touchdown from start to finish. 

During one simulation, "God" was in on a conspiracy to derail the simulation. The member had tasked one of the engineers to complain of stomach problems, right as the spacecraft in the sim began its descent to the surface. The engineer played along, crying out in pain, rushing to the toilet and disappearing. But the simulated mission carried on in that engineer's absence. 

"Make the most of your chances!" The Ryugu-no-tsukai in JAXA mission control.

JAXA

Tsuda says the team pulled together and, ultimately, the simulation was a success. 

On July 10, 2019, the second touchdown operation began. It was a carbon copy of the first, but this time a plush Japanese oarfish (a "Ryugu-no-tsukai") hung in the room with a message: "Make the most of your chances! That is the principle of space research!"

Team members huddled around the Doppler data on the wall for a second time. At 10:51 a.m. on July 11, Tsuda declared the mission a success. The celebrations, too, were a carbon copy, but this one meant a little more. JAXA had taken the risk and succeeded. Looking back, Fujimoto calls the second touchdown "one of the defining moments" of his career. 

With two bags of ancient rock now stowed safely within its sample capsule, it was time for JAXA to bring Hayabusa2 home. 

VIII. We Will Rock You

In Japan, JAXA hasn't always been seen as a space powerhouse. A difficult decade of launch failures and satellite deaths marred the Japanese space program before Hayabusa's launch in 2003. As troubled as that mission was, Hayabusa overcame nearly insurmountable odds and provided a launchpad for the agency's profile to skyrocket. 

"When people in Japan find out I work at JAXA, they say it's very cool and awesome, no matter the age group or profession," says James O'Donoghue, a former NASA planetary scientist now working at ISAS. He says the interest in JAXA seems similar to the American interest in NASA during the 1960s and 1970s. 

But internationally, JAXA doesn't receive the same level of adoration as its counterparts at NASA or the European Space Agency. Partly that's due to the language barrier. Elizabeth Tasker, an astrophysicist with JAXA who led the English efforts for Hayabusa2, is responsible for delivering mission updates and releases from the agency. She says "there's no reason in terms of the science they're doing not to get equal levels of recognition."

NASA has outreach down to an art, but JAXA is still learning how to promote itself. Fujimoto says this is partly born out of cultural beliefs in Japan. "You don't identify yourself as the heroes," he says. "It's something to be said by somebody else."

In the three months I spent interviewing team members prior to sample return, the emphasis on JAXA's teamwork really shone through. Members like Tsuda, the project manager, had become familiar faces around the world, while Fujimoto had overseen success after success, and yet they remained reluctant to praise themselves or their abilities.

"I just played my role," Fujimoto says. 

But as Hayabusa2's achievements mounted, there was plenty to celebrate. JAXA resolved to tell the spacecraft's story to the world and its outreach efforts dramatically increased. It even enlisted the help of Queen guitarist Brian May, himself an astrophysicist, to produce stereoscopic images of Ryugu's surface. The work enabled Ryugu to be seen in a new light, which, May says, "makes us feel like we are sitting next to these incredible objects." He's been thoroughly impressed by the JAXA team.

"All round, it's been an amazing spectacle and I think a great example of how efficiently a solar system mission can be executed," he says.

Outreach is particularly important when it comes to diversity, too. In the celebratory images from mission control in Sagamihara, few women are present. "It's a bit surprising, isn't it?" says Moe Matsuoka, a post-doctoral researcher at ISAS who worked on infrared imaging of Ryugu. She is hopeful her work and the success of Hayabusa2 can begin to inspire the next generation of Japanese women into STEM fields.

IX. Don't Stop Me Now

On the day before landing, I corner Fujimoto after his press conference in Woomera and we discuss the mission so far. We've been talking online for weeks, and now, meeting for the first time, I want to shake his hand and say hello. But I can't. A face mask is draped over my ears, the mission name and date embroidered with blue thread on the front. 

This is what it means to return an ancient asteroid sample during a pandemic. 

When Hayabusa2 departed Ryugu on Nov. 13, 2019, it was the Before Times. A huge contingent of JAXA staff were preparing for a trip Down Under to witness the end of their decade of hard work. COVID-19 saw those plans disintegrate. 

Just to get to Woomera, Fujimoto and the team of 79 scientists and engineers spent three weeks quarantined in hotels across Japan and Australia. They performed mission-critical training via Microsoft Teams and went through daily checklists speaking down the barrel of laptop webcams. When they eventually reached Woomera, they had to deal with masks and social distancing in the Outback's sweltering heat. 

On the drive to Coober Pedy, a storm began to brew over the flat, empty plains. 

Jackson Ryan/CNET

It was so hot that members of the crew felt woozy as they established radar stations to track the capsule's return in the Woomera Prohibited Area, a former nuclear test site about half the size of the United Kingdom.

The plan is for JAXA members to scour the WPA for the capsule shortly after it touches down on Dec. 6, but everyone else is instructed to leave Woomera and travel to Coober Pedy, an underground opal mining town about three and a half hours drive northwest. The skies over Coober Pedy will provide the best view of the return -- the moment the capsule slams into the atmosphere and transforms into a blazing fireball. 

As I drive out toward the underground locale, one final hurdle materializes on the horizon. Menacing clouds stretch across the sky, threatening to burst. With a crack, they spill. The rain is torrential. Back in Woomera, Fujimoto and members of the Australian Space Agency are anxious. He tells me they began checking the weather forecast religiously, bouncing between different reports, hoping to find a prediction that suits.

Clear skies aren't necessary for the sample to return to Earth, but rain and clouds will hamper the capsule's recovery mission. Still, Fujimoto holds on to his positive emotions -- the "Don't Stop Me Now" mentality he's carried the whole operation. When he heads toward the operations room deep within the Prohibited Area at midday on Dec. 5, he sees the skies clearing to the west. 

"We're gonna make it," he thinks to himself.

X. We Are the Champions

At 3:20 a.m. on Dec. 6, my phone's alarm begins to chime. Queen's Crazy Little Thing Called Love punctuates the silence. I was feeling superstitious when I set it the night before.

The blue light illuminates the darkness of the underground-cave-dressed-as-a-hotel-room I've booked for the night in Coober Pedy. Almost directly above my room is a lookout, a gravelly hillside, that a brochure tells me provides "the best view of town." That makes it a perfect spot to watch Hayabusa2's sample capsule return.

Video of the fireball taken from Coober Pedy on the morning of Dec. 6, 2020. 

JAXA

I climb up the steel steps to the top of the lookout, where I'm met by a chilly breeze and a dozen other stargazers. Fortunately, the storm clouds from earlier in the day have all but disappeared. My eyes adjust to the night sky, and stars blink into sight. A dozen visitors mingle about, trading hometowns and occupations in lieu of longer narratives -- there's no time for in-depth conversation because, in just a few moments, Hayabusa2's treasure boxwill cut through the dark. 

Two American couples have set up recording equipment, ready to capture the capsule's return in high definition. We have a brief exchange about where the capsule will first appear. I politely let them know their cameras are pointed the wrong way. 

Just before 4 a.m., a streak of light materializes in the sky. The capsule. The Americans now realize their error, amid the "oohs" and "wows" of the gathered crowd, and pivot their recorders 180 degrees. Others point their smartphone cameras at the sky. A few claps erupt. From our vantage point on top of the lookout, the capsule moves slowly and deliberately, an unwavering line of light headed toward the horizon. But that doesn't reflect the violence taking place overhead.

The sample capsule slams into Earth's atmosphere travelling at 12 kilometers per second, covering a distance of almost 246 football fields in the blink of an eye. The air in front of the capsule is compressed so dramatically that the outer carbon fiber heat shield reaches temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the capsule to glow about as brightly as a crescent moon. 

As quickly as it came, it disappears. 

Satoru Nakazawa, who led the recovery operation in Woomera, and the Hayabusa2 jackets worn by JAXA team members. 

Jackson Ryan/CNET

Two hundred miles to the southeast, the capsule is slowing down, just as expected. As it reaches an altitude of about 10 kilometers, it deploys a radar-reflective parachute and ejects its heat shield. Ground stations established across the desert track its descent. Half an hour later, JAXA mission control in Woomera calls touchdown. After 2,000 days in space, Hayabusa2's tamatebako is finally safe on Earth. 

A masterly, ordered recovery process marks the beginning of the end for the operation. It's a bittersweet moment for all JAXA team members. Relief, mixed with melancholy. Once all the ground stations are packed up and the sample capsule has flown back to Japan, most of the scientists and engineers will move on to new projects. "We achieved one thing, but we're going to lose another thing," Fujimoto says. "The team."

XI. The Show Must Go On

In the following days, the sample capsule is transported to Japan and delivered to the ISAS campus at Sagamihara. Team members line the street to watch the capsule arrive, as if it's royalty returning from a distant realm, cantering toward a castle. 

In some ways, it is. The sealed capsule contains relics from a distant kingdom, the Dragon Palace, that could answer some of the fundamental questions about life on Earth. Fujimoto jokes with me that when they open up the capsule and look inside for the first time, he hopes they play We Are The Champions. "That would never happen," he laughs. 

Ten days after retrieval, scientists at JAXA lift the lid on the tamatebako for the first time. Thankfully, they don't age rapidly in seconds, but what they find inside is almost as surprising as the curse of Urashima Taro. 

Yuichi Tsuda (left), project manager on the Hayabusa2 mission, and Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of ISAS.

ISAS/JAXA

Hirotaka Sawada, one of the members of the capsule recovery team, is the first person to lay eyes on subsurface material from an asteroid. He's looking through a window into the past, at rocks gathered 200 million miles from home. Clues, perhaps, about where we came from. The moment leaves him speechless. "That is the most happy time of my life," he says. 

Within the tube, he finds dozens of pebbles, up to a few millimeters in length, packed tightly into the metal tube. Sawada says some were even larger than the team expected. In 2021, the samples will be divided up and analyzed extensively. JAXA plans to share some of them with NASA scientists and hopes to compare them with the US agency's own asteroid samples, which the spacecraft Osiris-Rex retrieved from asteroid Bennu in October 2020.

For the Hayabusa2 mothership, the mission carries on for another decade, heading to ever more mysterious, unexplored worlds. The spacecraft will perform multiple flybys of the Earth over the next decade, tinkering with its trajectory enough to visit two asteroids by 2032. The show must go on.

But as this act came to a close, I had to know. Had the record player in Fujimoto's head finally changed tracks? Would he finally be singing We Are the Champions? 

"You know, Hayabusa2 is not the end," he says. "We have the next mission. So it's not really that We Are the Champions," he says.

"It's still Don't Stop Me Now."

Credits: Artwork by Realizm. ONC-W1 images: JAXA, Tokyo University, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST. The tale of Urashima Taro: adapted from Lafcadio Hearn's "The Dream of a Summer Day."

This piece was originally published with the title "Journey to the Dragon Palace: Inside Hayabusa2's history-making asteroid mission."

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Unexplained interstellar visitor Oumuamua could be lost piece of an exoplanet – CNET

oumuamua-painting-hartmann

In this image, Oumuamua looks a bit like a meaty Millennium Falcon, but it could be a remnant of a Pluto-like planet.

William Hartmann

Ever since we were visited by Oumuamua, the first interstellar object we found wandering through our solar system, scientists have been captivated by it. It's a puzzling cosmic vagabond -- so weird that some scientists have even postulated it could be a piece of alien technology (though there's no real evidence of that.)

A new theory, which appears in two papers published Tuesday in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, posits that the strange object could be an ejected piece of a Pluto-like planet that was blasted out of its home solar system around 400 million years ago. 

"This research is exciting in that we've probably resolved the mystery of what Oumuamua is," said Steven Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and co-author of the new studies. "We can reasonably identify it as a chunk of an 'exo-Pluto,' a Pluto-like planet in another solar system."   

Oumuamua (Hawaiian for "scout" or "messenger") was discovered in 2017 as it rounded the sun on its way out of our solar system. It was observed in October and November of 2017 before it disappeared into the dark. 

And it was weird.

It exhibited some strange behavior. Observations suggested it was cigar-shaped, and as it rounded the sun, it gathered a great deal of speed -- more than expected -- without showing any signs of escaping gas, a telltale marker of a comet. 

Read more: Harvard's Avi Loeb more sure than ever we were visited by alien spacecraft

Desch and co-author Alan Jackson believe that in another planetary system, somewhere in space half a billion years ago, a collision between two cosmic bodies caused an explosive ejection of nitrogen ice. A pancake-shaped block was hurled out from its home and into the space between planetary systems.

In the freezing depths of the cosmos, this solid block of nitrogen would wander, slowly being chipped away by radiation. When it entered our solar system and approached the sun, the nitrogen heated up, giving it a little speed boost, while also producing the cigar-shape that Earth observers noticed. Jackson says the heating would've flattened the object, just like how a bar of soap's outer layers get rubbed off during use.

It's a neat explanation, accounting for all Oumuamua's strangeness, and it's an exciting hypothesis because it suggests Oumuamua is the first piece of an exoplanet that's visited our solar system.

Oumuamua's reflectiveness also matched what astronomers have observed on Pluto and on Neptune's moon Triton, which are nitrogen rich. In a distant young solar system, where bodies were constantly bumping into each other, it's reasonable to think chunks were thrown for a wild ride through space and that we just so happened to see one passing by. 

"We reasoned it was possible that there could have been Plutos in other solar systems with nitrogen ice on their surfaces and a piece of it knocked off could have entered our solar system and explained everything we saw," Desch said.

And that, he said, puts a dampener on the alien spacecraft theory. 

"Everybody is interested in aliens, and it was inevitable that this first object outside the solar system would make people think of aliens," said Desch. "But it's important in science not to jump to conclusions."

So far, scientists have discovered only two interstellar objects. The second, 2I/Borisov, was found in late 2019 and was fairly ordinary by comparison. It was almost certainly a comet, but it did surprise scientists with some unique features.

Follow CNET's 2021 Space Calendar to stay up to date with all the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar.    

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‘Overly cautious’: No evidence AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine linked to blood clots – CNET

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A host of European countries have paused the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine to investigate blood clots in those who had been vaccinated.

Getty/Jens Schleuter

Though there is currently no evidence the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca increases the risk of blood clots, a handful of European nations announced on Monday they would pause their rollout while the European Medicines Agency investigates. 

The pause in France, Germany, Italy and Spain comes less than a week after Austria and other EU nations stopped administering AstraZeneca vaccinations from a particular batch of 1 million doses. 

The death of a vaccinated patient in Norway and another in Denmark on March 11 spurred the temporary halt, but in a statement released on March 15 the EMA maintains "the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing COVID-19, with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death, outweigh the risks of side effects."

The expert consensus is on the side of the EMA, with the World Health Organization, Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration, and health scientists and immunization experts contacted by CNET suggesting there's not enough evidence to show an increase in "thromboembolic" events, which include deep vein thrombosis, clots and pulmonary embolisms. 

"It is my belief that the various regulating bodies who have temporarily halted the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout are being overly cautious," said Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia. 

Esterman notes there have only been 30 reports of blood clotting issues in almost 5 million vaccinations, which is "no different" to the rate you expect in an unvaccinated population. In addition, Esterman notes there's "not a biological plausible reason why the vaccine would cause blood clots."

Infections are surging in some European nations, including Italy, which has returned to lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19, and France, which is seeing its highest levels of hospitalization since November.

In a press release on Sunday, AstraZeneca offered reassurance of its vaccine's safety. "We are going beyond the standard practices for safety monitoring of licensed medicines in reporting vaccine events, to ensure public safety," said Ann Taylor, AstraZeneca's chief medical officer.

During trials, the AstraZeneca vaccine experienced one temporary pause, while researchers investigated a severe adverse event in a trial participant. A safety review confirmed the event was not related to the vaccine. The vaccine has been approved for use by regulators in the UK, Australia, Canada, the European Union, South Korea and Brazil with emergency authorization in more than a dozen other countries. It has received emergency use listing by the WHO, but hasn't been approved for use in the US.

The investigations are ongoing and recommendations could change. The WHO is scheduled to conduct its own safety meeting regarding the vaccine on Tuesday while the EMA's safety committee is expected to convene an emergency meeting on Thursday to "conclude on the information gathered and any further actions that may need to be taken." 

While the events need to be investigated, there are suggestions a pause may be an overreaction that could harm the public trust in the vaccine. 

"We would urge extreme caution in pausing rollouts while investigations are underway, because once a vaccine rollout is paused, it can sometimes dent vaccine confidence so much that it struggles to recover," said Nigel Crwaford, a vaccine expert at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

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Astronomers find a supermassive black hole moving strangely in deep space – CNET

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At the heart of galaxy J0437+2456 lies a black hole, astronomers think they've found a restless black hole.

Sloan Digital Sky Survey

A supermassive black hole (SMBH), about three million times more massive than the sun, is on the run. Around 230 million light-years from Earth, the black hole has been disturbed and now it's moving peculiarly at a speed of around 110,000 miles per hour -- but astronomers aren't quite sure why.

In a new study, published in the Astrophysical Journal on Friday, a team of astronomers observed supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies, looking for signs they may be moving unusually. In space, everything is moving in all sorts of directions thanks to the push and pull of gravity, but most black holes are moving in the same direction at the same speed as their host galaxy. 

"We don't expect the majority of supermassive black holes to be moving; they're usually content to just sit around," Dominic Pesce, an astronomer at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and lead author on the study, told the Harvard Gazette

Not so for the galaxy J0437+2456 and its SMBH. It's not content just sitting around.

In 2018, Pesce and colleagues noticed the SMBH at the center of J0437+2456 may have been acting a little strange. Following up on their original observations of the galaxy with the now-defunct Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii and Chile, they now describe the rare and funky motion of the galaxy's mammoth black hole.

To study the movement of black holes -- invisible cosmic beasts -- the team had to focus on the area surrounding the holes. Circling the SMBH at the center of a galaxy is an "accretion disk" of debris and dusty material that is slowly being gobbled up. It's a great source of light and radio waves. The team looked at SMBH's that contained water in their disks and looked for a tell tale signal the circling water throws off -- the extremely scifi sounding phenomenon known as a "maser." This emission can be used to measure a black hole's velocity.

Of the 10 black holes they studied, only the one at the center of J0437+2456 was unusual. It was not moving at the same velocity as its home galaxy.

But how did it come to be so disturbed? The team aren't really sure but they offer some possibilities.

The focus of their studies has been to use masers to identify pairs of SMBHs or black holes that have recently merged together. In the merger scenario, the new black hole can "recoil," which may explain why its velocity is different to its home galaxy. If its a pair of black holes -- a binary system -- then the violent push and pull of gravity might be causing disturbances to its velocity. 

There's also the possibility it is an SMBH from an external galaxy that recently collided with J0437+2456. 

For now, it remains a mystery. 

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After coronavirus: Australia offers a strange glimpse of life post-pandemic – CNET

Hello, from The Future.

I'm writing from Sydney, New South Wales, at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 12, 2021. For the past 54 days, NSW, Australia's most populous state of around 8 million residents, has recorded zero new cases of coronavirus.

Currently, the total number of cases in Australia since the beginning of the pandemic is less than 30,000 in a country of over 25 million. Other countries are facing a far more grim reality: The US is averaging almost double this amount of cases per day. Comparative death tolls paint a worse picture. Nine hundred and nine people have died from the coronavirus in Australia, while in the US, that number is over 528,000. Brazil's death toll stands at over 268,000, and in the UK, it's over 125,000. 

The exceptional response in Australia -- rapid lockdowns and strict quarantine rules -- has given us some great freedoms. Last weekend, I watched a movie on the big screen. Just over a year ago, going to the cinema seemed like a routine thing to do. Mundane, even. But I hadn't been to the cinema since Jan. 11, 2020. Doing so has, for many months, seemed careless or even selfish. This was big.

A year since the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic, Australia provides a tiny glimpse of what the future might look like. The crisis isn't over, and we haven't even agreed on what "The End" really means scientifically or socially, but in Australia, the end feels as close as it ever has. In this pseudo-future place, we've found some semblance of normalcy. As much of the world still struggles to get outbreaks under control and grieves daily losses. It's an incredibly strange feeling. 

Being at a cinema hammers the point home.

Just to be allowed into the building, a steward at the door taps an A4 poster on the wall, next to a hand sanitizer station. "Have you signed in?" 

Then, the COVID scramble: A fumble for my phone, standing awkwardly as the camera registers the black and white dots of a QR code emblazoned on the wall, a line forming behind me, thumbing in my details to sign into an app that logs the time I visited and provides contact tracers with a way to find me, should an outbreak arise.

As soon as I walk in, my brain short circuits. 

I'm sure you've experienced this, too: Being out in public, you're increasingly conscious of the people around you. People clearing their throat or coughing into their elbow. I notice some of the staff members are wearing masks, others aren't. One is making a half-hearted attempt; the fabric doesn't cover his nose. 

I scan my ticket in, and by the time I sit down, there are around two dozen people dotted through the 50-seat cinema, slurping on gigantic cups of Coke and rustling buckets of popcorn. An empty chair on either side of each patron separates us. I'm not sure that's the social distancing requirement, but it's something. To my right, a guy shovels a Choc Top into his mouth. When he laughs, ice cream splutters all over his face.

The normality of it all weirds me out.

Doughnuts

Down Under, the coronavirus has practically been exterminated. We've grown accustomed to days with zero cases. We even nicknamed them! "Doughnut days," we say. Initially, we celebrated each successive one with a stream of tweets and breaking news reports. We waited for morning press conferences, where state leaders delivered the new case count. 5, 2, 1, 2, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0. 

Now, even doughnut days seem routine.

It hasn't been an easy road to get here. Victoria, the country's second most populous state and the one hardest hit by coronavirus, endured over three months of hard lockdown in 2020. Residents weren't able to travel outside of a three-mile bubble and they could only be outside for an hour a day. The city's once bustling alleyways became hauntingly empty. 

How did we do it? Superb management by our state-based health services in containing and tracing outbreaks, plus a stringent quarantine policy for those returning from overseas has prevented any small clusters from ballooning into unmanageable crises. 

At times, it's seemed like we may have gone too hard. When a single case of the UK variant was discovered in a quarantine worker, the city of Brisbane shut down for three days. Melbourne, in the same situation, shut down for five days. In both instances, the method worked, and the variant, which scientists believe to be more transmissible, didn't get into the community. 

Doughnut days for everyone. 

A day after visiting the cinema, I head down to the local "bowlo," as we call it -- a lawn bowls club. It's like a bar, with bowling greens. This one has two: one immaculate, one downtrodden. All over the entryway are posters explaining you must head inside and scan the QR code. I do the COVID scramble again. My friends do the same.

There are people everywhere and not a single mask in sight. I brought my own, but once I've ordered a beer and sat down at a table, it stays in my back pocket. 

It's the first time in a year I've been in a place with this many people. Our group of four is small compared with the other people gathered on the greens or at the bar. For a long time, NSW banned dancing and standing in bars like this. We're allowed to do both now. Not many start a jig, but plenty stand around in the afternoon sun, clinking their glasses. "Cheers!" 

If you can ignore the screaming children, it's kind of pleasant. 

Yes, The Future also features children screaming on a downtrodden green. 

It's increasingly difficult to imagine the US is averaging about 50,000 coronavirus cases a day. Or how case counts in places like Brazil, where an emerging variant might even be capable of reinfecting those who have already fallen ill and recovered from COVID-19, are higher than they've ever been.

Sitting in the sun on the green with a few mates sharing a beer feels kind of unreal. I feel lucky. Fortunate.

Perhaps the normality of it all weirds me out because things snapped back to how they used to be, in The Past, so quickly. One moment you're not allowed to have visitors in your house, the next moment you're back at the bowlo and strangers are dancing around you.

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On March 6, 36,000 people descended on the Sydney Cricket Ground to celebrate the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

Getty/James D. Morgan

In a week, Australian Rules Football -- Australia's eminent sporting competition -- will begin again. The games are set to be played in full-capacity stadiums, something that didn't happen at all in 2020.

The AFL, which oversees the competition, expects fans to wear masks when they can't social distance. Hand sanitizing stations will be situated throughout our stadiums, which can hold around 50,000 people. We'll likely have to scan our QR codes as we enter the gates.

The Future is a meat pie and an iced coffee and hot fries lathered in chicken salt, yelling obscenities at a visiting sports team.

In a week, I'll be sitting in a stadium for the first time since 2019. It's kind of unfathomable. Just thinking about it weirds me out.


Give or take a few hand sanitizing stations, the constant Zoom calls and the ever present QR codes at our cinemas and our sporting stadiums, living in The Future feels very similar to living in The Past, but that doesn't make it any less weird. 

It's an incredibly privileged position to be in, feeling safe and free, visiting friends and family or attending weddings and birthday parties or just going to the cinema to watch a movie while seeing daily case totals in other parts of the world continuing to rise. I know we're lucky in Australia. We've (mostly) had the pandemic on Easy Mode. We have the advantage of being an island with great border controls. Our taxpayer-funded, public health care system is world class. Very few countries have fared as well as we have.

Perhaps the normalcy feels so weird because of this. Even though it can sometimes feel like we're living in a post-pandemic future here, we see how the rest of the world is struggling. We celebrate while others commiserate. And through it, there's also an uneasy dread the virus will return. We can see the pandemic isn't over.

Our doughnut days could be over in a flash. 

The end?

It's taken a long time to get used to living in The Future, but it's also been really easy. That's just the nature of living through a pandemic, I guess. 

There's still a long way to go before Australians get to the other side. The coronavirus is a constant presence, but it somehow seems less threatening here. Less menacing. 

A few weeks ago, the first Australians were vaccinated with doses of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine. This week, the AstraZeneca vaccine began its roll out across the country. The plan is to vaccinate as many Australians as quickly as possible, with health care workers and the elderly at the top of the list. I'm scheduled to receive it sometime in July, but the rollout has been slow. 

We've long been told the vaccines herald the beginning of the end for the pandemic. We're told they'll allow international travel again, that we will soon be able to globetrot across borders and mingle with family we haven't seen for a year, or complete strangers in bars and restaurants -- maybe even bowlos. 

We've glimpsed what a post-pandemic future might look like in Australia. But it will remain just a glimpse until we can vaccinate a huge proportion of the people on the planet. Just 16% of the global population has secured 70% of all available doses. Some forecasts show the world's population might not be vaccinated until around 2023 or 2024. We can't leave the world waiting that long. 

The World Health Organization has been warning about rich countries hoarding vaccines since January. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Jan. 18 that "the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure" if we don't distribute vaccines equally.  

The Future is worrying about the future -- not just in Australia, but around the world. It's easy to get caught up in our own little corner of the planet, especially after we've been locked inside for so long. Things do feel strangely normal down here. But the pandemic, by definition, is a global crisis, and to truly bring about its end, it must be tackled on a planetary scale. 

Soon, I hope, other countries will be able to join us and get a glimpse of this future. The US aims to make vaccines available to all eligible adults by May 1. The UK has delivered over 23 million doses; its vaccination rate lags behind only Israel and the UAE. But if only the wealthiest countries are able to vaccinate their citizens, the end of the pandemic -- The Future -- will remain a long way off. It will be a place reserved only for the lucky few. 

That's not much of a future at all. 

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Astronomers discover the most distant cosmic jet yet, bursting from a black hole – CNET

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An artistic impression of the quasar P172+18, which contains a black hole 300 times more massive than the sun. 

ESO/M. Kornmesser

When we look into space, we are looking back in time. If you stare at the moon, you're seeing the orb as it was around 1.3 seconds ago. Pointing your telescope at Mars? You're seeing it as it was around 20 minutes ago. That's how long it takes for light to travel those vast distances across the solar system. With a big-enough telescope, you can see light from the earliest moments of the universe, some 13 billion years ago. 

Peering into a distant corner of space in 2015 with telescopes in Hawaii, astronomers found a bright and distant object from when the universe was only around 780 million years old. And it was record-breaking. Follow-up observations confirmed they'd discovered a huge jet of material emanating from a supermassive black hole that lived during the earliest epoch of the cosmos.

In a study, published in The Astrophysical Journal on Monday, the researchers detail the jet and its home quasar, which lies about 13 billion light-years from Earth. Officially, the quasar is called PSO J172.3556+18.7734, but scientists have, fortunately, nicknamed it P172+18. 

Let's step back a little, though. A quasar is a distant, bright supermassive black hole at the center of ancient galaxies. While black holes themselves are invisible, those at the heart of quasars are so massive that they draw in the gas and debris circling them at great speed in what's known as an accretion disk, heating the material up and releasing extreme amounts of energy. This makes them incredibly luminous. Quasars have been discovered that are thousands of times brighter than the Milky Way. 

While illustrations of the quasars often dazzle (like the one above), scientists only see them as a pinprick of light a few pixels wide on readouts from telescope data.

This particular quasar is a record-breaker because of the cosmic jet, which blasts out perpendicular to the accretion disk. It's only about 1,000 years old. Cosmic jets are super-high-speed material being blasted out of the galaxy's center, and they throw off a ton of energy as radio waves when they interact with the galaxy's gas. Astronomers class these types of quasars as "radio-loud" and believe the jets may help black holes grow and could play a role in how a galaxy forms and evolves.  

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This elongated image of P172+18 shows the inner part of the jet

Momjian et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF

"Jets have a role in regulating star formation and the growth of their host galaxies, so this discovery is valuable to understanding these processes in the early universe," said Chris Carilli, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and a co-author on the study.   

But only around 10% of quasars are radio-loud, and this one, at some 13 billion light-years away, is the most distant ever found. 

P172+18 isn't the most distant quasar ever found, however. That record belongs to J0313-1806, which houses the oldest supermassive black hole scientists have yet discovered and resides about 13.03 billion light-years from Earth. That was discovered by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, which is particularly adept at spotting very ancient, very distant cosmic phenomena. When NASA's next-generation James Webb Space Telescope launches later in the year, it too should help probe the early universe even more.

It's almost a certainty that records will continue to tumble.

"This discovery makes me optimistic, and I believe -- and hope -- that the distance record will be broken soon," said Eduardo Bañados, an astronomer at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

Follow CNET's 2021 Space Calendar to stay up to date with all the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar.    

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