NASA’s asteroid pattern mission calls on Vatican for assist

When a NASA robotic scooped a cup of gravel from an asteroid 200 million miles away, scientists had been shocked.

Bennu, an historical area island the dimensions of the Empire State Constructing, did not look or behave like they thought it might. Early temperature readings led them to consider it might be coated in tiny pebbles. As a substitute, closeup photos confirmed boulders and a floor that acted like a plastic ball pit.

The OSIRIS-Rex mission group thought-about that the boulders may very well be stuffed with holes, creating a really weak pile of rubble. All of a sudden, understanding the area inside the area rocks turned a necessary piece of the puzzle.

OSIRIS-Rex imaging Bennu boulders

OSIRIS-Rex’s spacecraft takes photos of the boulders on Bennu.
Credit score: NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Middle / College of Arizona

That was three years in the past. Now the spacecraft is zooming towards Earth, with the group getting ready to command it to drop the pattern 63,000 miles above our planet. If it really works, a capsule containing bits of Bennu will fall from the heavens to Utah on Sept. 24.

Within the meantime, you possibly can say NASA has known as upon the Vatican for a Hail Mary.

Brother Robert J. Macke, curator of the Vatican’s meteorite assortment, has designed a customized machine that may match contained in the glovebox the place scientists will deal with the pattern. Inside days of OSIRIS-Rex’s arrival, the Jesuit will depart Castel Gandolfo, the place the pope generally summers, and head for Johnson Area Middle in Houston. There he’ll don a protecting coverall over his Roman collar and assist scientists use his pycnometer, an instrument for measuring the density of tiny grains of gravel. Via these measurements, NASA hopes to resolve Bennu’s mysterious boulders.


NASA’s dropping off an area package deal from 63,000 miles excessive

Macke, because it seems, is likely one of the foremost consultants in holey area rocks.

With colleagues on the Vatican Observatory, he has refined strategies for measuring the density and porousness of meteorites — area rocks which have survived the inferno of falling by Earth’s environment to the bottom. The Roman Catholic Church has about 1,200 specimens in its trove.

Little-known to the world, the Vatican has had an observatory staffed by Jesuit astronomers for the reason that Nineteen Thirties. Religious Catholic males who’ve taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience stay collectively whereas learning the cosmos. The legacy extends even additional again in historical past. Within the mid-1800s, priest Angelo Secchi constructed an observatory on the roof of the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome. The church performed astronomical analysis to point out the compatibility of Catholicism and science, the Jesuits say.

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One would possibly marvel how somebody so dedicated to the Bible reckons with the idea that the universe is 13.8 billion years previous.

“I see no battle between religion and science,” mentioned Macke, identified to many colleagues as merely Brother Bob. “There are individuals who interpret scripture actually, and that is not doing scripture justice. When you look, as an illustration, on the story of Genesis, that isn’t a recipe e-book for creation. It is probably not a historical past. It was supposed to be a narrative to specific a basic fact.”

Macke’s path to the OSIRIS-Rex mission — brief for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security Regolith Explorer — was lengthy and windy. From a younger age, he knew he liked area and constructing issues from scratch. As one in every of six kids, he realized to be thrifty and resourceful, utilizing his dad’s instruments and making repairs. He crafted fashions out of paper and cardboard, like Star Trek‘s Starship Enterprise. A few of his early handiwork stays in his dad and mom’ basement.

Finally, he went to MIT to check astrophysics, then Washington College, the place he participated in a analysis group targeted on “presolar grains,” bits of stardust embedded in meteorites that survived the formation of the photo voltaic system.

However one thing wasn’t clicking.

“I might be within the laboratory wanting on the clock, considering, ‘Have I been in right here lengthy sufficient to justify the day?’ and you may’t do science that method,” remembers Macke, now almost 50.

When Macke attended a Catholic Scholar Middle retreat, he felt known as to a spiritual life. To a few of his kin’ shock, he dropped out of faculty to hitch the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of monks and brothers based half a millennium in the past.

Macke taking final vows as a Jesuit brother

Brother Robert J. Macke is a Jesuit astronomer on the Vatican Observatory.
Credit score: Robert J. Macke

It wasn’t lengthy earlier than science reeled him again in, although. In 2004, whereas learning philosophy for his Jesuit formation, he met Brother Man Consolmagno, who heads the Vatican Observatory right this moment. He invited Macke to hitch him within the laboratory, the place he was utilizing a novel strategy to measure the density of meteorites.

A short explainer: There are two kinds of density. Bulk density is the quantity of the complete outer floor of a rock, together with any pore area; grain density, alternatively, is the quantity of the strong components of the rock with out the voids. If in case you have these two completely different densities, you’ll be able to evaluate them to get porosity measurements.

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“I truly spent a lot time working within the laboratory doing measurements of density and porosity of the meteorites right here, that they type of kicked me out of the lab in direction of the top and mentioned, ‘You are in Italy — go do Italy,'” Macke mentioned.

He returned to the USA to complete his physics doctorate and wrote a dissertation in 2010 that included porosity data of over 1,000 meteorites from establishments all over the world. The paper is cited typically by different scientists.

Brother Robert Macke working in the lab

Brother Robert Macke constructed NASA a pycnometer for the Bennu samples, even with the difficult restrictions.
Credit score: Robert J. Macke

Andrew Ryan, a co-investigator on the NASA mission, had by no means met Macke however knew he wanted his assist to resolve an issue. Earlier asteroid pattern return missions by Japan’s space agency weren’t in a position to get these key measurements. And no off-the-shelf pycnometer would do the trick, Ryan mentioned.

“I see no battle between religion and science.”

To stop contamination of the pattern, NASA’s curation group had set stringent guidelines about what might go contained in the glovebox. Solely about 15 supplies had been accepted, resembling chrome steel, aluminum, and glass. Motors, computer systems, and circuitry had been strictly prohibited. Firms that promote the ready-made units, which price about $20,000 apiece, weren’t considering telling Ryan how they may very well be retrofitted.

“In a couple of circumstances, they simply type of closed the dialog and had been like, ‘Properly, that is all we will say right here. Tell us if you wish to purchase one,'” he mentioned.

Along with being an knowledgeable in holey area rocks, Macke enjoys tinkering. On his Youtube channel, Macke Makerspace, his movies showcase fashions he makes from scratch with a 3D printer. One in every of his creations, a scale mannequin of the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, might be on show for vacationers in the course of the Jubilee in 2025. Subsequent he’ll be engaged on what he calls a “zero-knowledge clock,” which he’ll attempt to construct with no prior directions.

Macke believed he might construct NASA a pycnometer for the Bennu samples, even with the difficult restrictions. Over a number of months, and with University of Arizona students, Macke made an instrument of little metal chambers, steel tubes, and valves that open and shut. All the electronics are housed in a separate field saved off to the facet of the clear room. Nitrogen gasoline might be pumped by the system. Then, before-and-after strain calculations will point out the quantity displaced by the specimen.

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It might appear to be an obscure bit of information, however Ryan says it may very well be essential for understanding Bennu, regarded as rubble leftover from a a lot older, bigger asteroid that could not fairly hack it as a planet.

“We’re actually hoping that we will use this porosity measurement to assist us determine these two fundamental boulder varieties that we noticed on the floor, as a result of in any other case it may very well be fairly arduous,” he mentioned. “We’re speaking about boulders that had been, in some circumstances, tens or tons of of meters. And shortly we’ll be taking a look at centimeter-sized particles.”

NASA paid for the components to make the pycnometer, amounting to about the identical price as an off-the-shelf instrument, Ryan mentioned. It’s going to stay within the Johnson clear room for many years. Macke acquired no compensation from the area company for his contribution — a perk of hiring a Jesuit for the job.

“That is one of many good issues about (the vow of) poverty,” Macke mentioned, smiling. “I haven’t got to fret about that.”

Scientists installing pycnometer

Scientists set up Macke’s pycnometer into the glovebox for OSIRIS-Rex’s Bennu samples at NASA’s Johnson Area Middle.
Credit score: Andrew Ryan

Macke plans to say a couple of prayers earlier than the pattern touches down. However when he will get into the lab, he’ll doubtless be chanting Shepard’s Prayer, he mentioned. That is not Psalm 23, “The lord is my shepherd. I shall not need,” however the phrases uttered by Alan Shepard, the first American blasted into space in 1961.

As legend goes, the astronaut, ready for ignition, mentioned one thing alongside the strains of, “Expensive lord, please do not let me fuck up.”

Is Macke a Jesuit scientist or a scientist-Jesuit? The 2 halves of his life seem like inextricably linked.

“I do not suppose that I might be full as an individual if I had been simply doing one or the opposite,” he mentioned. “I want the prayer to really feel my work, and I want my work to provide me one thing to hope about.”

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