Atom & Cosmos

An asteroid's star turn, a 520-day mission to nowhere and the brightest millisecond pulsar ever

Close encounters of the asteroid kind
A nearly 400-meter-long asteroid is ready for its close-up. Telescopes will zoom in on the space rock — clunkily known as 2005 YU55 — when it passes just 323,000 kilometers from Earth on November 8, the closest visit by an asteroid this size since 1976. Whizzing by at 48,000 kilometers per hour, the charcoal-black world will be targeted by scientists trying to learn more about its composition and terrain: 2005 YU55 is a carbonaceous chondrite, the same type of asteroid that may have delivered organic molecules and water to an embryonic Earth. There’s no danger of a collision, but scientists say an impact by a similar-size object would trigger a 4,000 megaton blast if it hit land or a 70-foot-high tsunami in the event of a water landing. — Nadia Drake

Pumped up pulsars
In a globular cluster far, far away shines a millisecond pulsar for the record books: Spinning 27,000 light years from Earth in NGC 6624, the collapsed star is brighter, younger and has a stronger magnetic field than other dervishes of its type, an international team of scientists reported online November 3 in Science. The team thought at first that it was seeing 100 pulsars,  but the telltale gamma rays came from just one enormously energetic object, J1823-2021A, that spins more than 180 times per second.   — Nadia Drake

International space news
This week, China took another step in assembling its space station, Russia prepared to launch a spacecraft destined for the Mars moon Phobos and an international group of six “space travelers” emerged after 18 months of isolation. On November 3, after a two-day orbital chase, the Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou-8 docked with Tiangong-1, a space lab module already orbiting Earth. The next day, six volunteers emerged from more than 520 days inside a windowless, mock spacecraft intended to simulate conditions during a manned mission to Mars. Conducted in Moscow, the Mars500 experiment was run by the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. And on November 8, Russia plans to launch the Phobos-Grunt probe, destined for Mars’ mysterious, walnut-shaped moon, and the first attempt by Russia to send a spacecraft outside Earth orbit in 15 years. — Nadia Drake

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