Overhead today, a triumph of brainpower

We do not get many opportunities to pause and reflect on the abilities of the human mind, but today is providing the chance to consider the possibilities of genius, particularly when you consider the relatively short time since humans mastered flight.

NASA launched OSIRIS-REx a year ago, sending it on its way to the asteroid Bennu, where it will take samples and return them to earth.

It doesn’t have enough fuel to get there, which is OK because in the time since its launch, the earth has swung in its orbit to meet the spacecraft again.

It will pass within 11,000 miles of us just before noon today, and use the earth’s gravitational pull to slingshot itself toward the asteroid. It — or rather someone’s human mind — accomplished this by factoring in the six degree difference between the earth’s orbit around the sun and the asteroid’s.

If all goes well, the slingshot will match the spacecraft’s speed and trajectory to the asteroid’s.

It’ll look like this:

The spacecraft’s Twitter account is urging people to “wave” to it today, which is a pretty appropriate way to get people to stop and consider just how smart our species can be when we put out minds to it.

In today’s process, giving the spacecraft some momentum takes some away from the earth’s, the New York Times says. Not to worry. We’ve got plenty and fall will still arrive as scheduled later this afternoon.

How will the spacecraft bring its samples back to earth? Gravity takes care of that, too.

Gravity is cool.

All credit goes to whomever inspires us in math, science, and physics.

  • RBHolb
  • Jack Ungerleider

    Off topic cool science story.
    When most people hear the term relativity they think Einstein. But the first discussions of relativistic motion belong to Galileo and he used them to explain why some arguments could not be used to prove the earth doesn’t move. Today everyone who drives a car or other enclosed motor vehicle protects against “Galilean relativity” by wearing a seat belt. The kids in the local skate park use it to jump over the low bar while the skateboard goes underneath. But Galileo’s 17th century example might still be the best.

    (Paraphrasing): As you watch the ship sail into the harbor from the shore you will see the sailor drop the coiled rope from the top of the mast to his fellow standing directly below him. From the shore the rope traces an arc as it falls down and forward with the motion of the ship. On the deck of the ship, that is moving forward with the rope, the motion of the rope looks to be straight down.

    He used this explanation in “Dialogues Concerning Two Chief World Systems” to counter the argument that if you threw a ball into the air on a moving Earth it would land in front or behind you depending on which way you are facing.

  • Doug

    I had the same thought after watching a documentary about Cassini, the spacecraft that plunged to its death over Saturn recently. Mankind is capable of such greatness …and such horror. We are truly a bipolar species.