An asteroid the size of an SUV passed 1,830 miles (2,950 kilometers) above Earth, the closest asteroid ever observed passing by our planet, NASA said Tuesday.
If it had been on a collision course with Earth, the asteroid — named 2020 QG — would likely not have caused any damage, instead disintegrating in the atmosphere, creating a fireball in the sky, or a meteor, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said in a statement.
The asteroid, which was about 10 to 20 feet (three to six meters) long, passed above the southern Indian Ocean on Sunday at 0408 GMT.
It was moving at nearly eight miles per second (12.3 kilometers per second), well below the geostationary orbit of about 22,000 miles at which most telecommunication satellites fly.
The asteroid was first recorded six hours after its approach by the Zwicky Transient Facility, a telescope at the Palomar Observatory at the California Institute of Technology, as a long trail of light in the sky.
The US space agency said that similarly sized asteroids pass by Earth at a similar distance a few times per year.
But they’re difficult to record, unless they’re heading directly towards the planet, in which case the explosion in the atmosphere is usually noticed — as in Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013, when the explosion of an object about 66 feet long shattered windows for miles, injuring a thousand people.
One of NASA’s missions is to monitor larger asteroids (460 feet) that could actually pose a threat to Earth, but their equipment also tracks smaller ones.
“It’s really cool to see a small asteroid come by this close, because we can see the Earth’s gravity dramatically bends its trajectory,” said Paul Chodas, the director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA.
According to the JPL’s calculations, the asteroid turned by about 45 degrees due to Earth’s gravitational pull.
At the beginning of this year, a group of NASA scientists agonized over which robotic missions they should choose to explore our Solar System. Researchers from around the United States had submitted more than 20 intriguing ideas, such as whizzing by asteroids, diving into lava tubes on the Moon, and hovering in the Venusian atmosphere.
Ultimately, NASA selected four of these Discovery-class missions for further study. In several months, the space agency will pick two of the four missions to fully fund, each with a cost cap of $450 million and a launch late within this decade. For the losing ideas, there may be more chances in future years—but until new opportunities arise, scientists can only plan, wait, and hope.
This is more or less how NASA has done planetary science for decades. Scientists come up with all manner of great ideas to answer questions about our Solar System; then, NASA announces an opportunity, a feeding frenzy ensues for those limited slots. Ultimately, one or two missions get picked and fly. The whole process often takes a couple of decades from the initial idea to getting data back to Earth.
This process has succeeded phenomenally. In the last half century, NASA has explored most of the large bodies in the Solar System, from the Sun and Mercury on one end to Pluto and the heliopause at the other. No other country or space agency has come close to NASA’s planetary science achievements. And yet, as the abundance of Discovery-class mission proposals tells us, there is so much more we can learn about the Solar System.
Now, two emerging technologies may propel NASA and the rest of the world into an era of faster, low-cost exploration. Instead of spending a decade or longer planning and developing a mission, then spending hundreds of millions (to billions!) of dollars bringing it off, perhaps we can fly a mission within a couple of years for a few tens of millions of dollars. This would lead to more exploration and also democratize access to the Solar System.
In recent years, a new generation of companies is developing new rockets for small satellites that cost roughly $10 million for a launch. Already, Rocket Lab has announced a lunar program for its small Electron rocket. And Virgin Orbit has teamed up with a group of Polish universities to launch up to three missions to Mars with its LauncherOne vehicle.
At the same time, the various components of satellites, from propulsion to batteries to instruments, are being miniaturized. It’s not quite like a mobile phone, which today has more computing power than a machine that filled a room a few decades ago. But small satellites are following the same basic trend line.
Moreover, the potential of tiny satellites is no longer theoretical. Two years ago, a pair of CubeSats built by NASA (and called MarCO-A and MarCO-B) launched along with the InSight mission. In space, the small satellites deployed their own solar arrays, stabilized themselves, pivoted toward the Sun, and then journeyed to Mars.
“We are at a time when there are really interesting opportunities for people to do missions much more quickly,” said Elizabeth Frank, an Applied Planetary Scientist at First Mode, a Seattle-based technology company. “It doesn’t have to take decades. It creates more opportunity. This is a very exciting time in planetary science.”
NASA had several goals with its MarCO spacecraft, said Andy Klesh, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who served as technical lead for the mission. CubeSats had never flown beyond low-Earth orbit before. So during their six-month transit to Mars, the MarCOs proved small satellites could thrive in deep space, control their attitudes and, upon reaching their destination, use a high-gain antenna to stream data back home at 8 kilobits per second.
But the briefcase-sized MarCO satellites were more than a mere technology demonstration. With the launch of its Mars InSight lander in 2018, NASA faced a communications blackout during the critical period when the spacecraft was due to enter the Martian atmosphere and touch down on the red planet.
To close the communications gap, NASA built the two MarCO 6U CubeSats for $18.5 million and used them to relay data back from InSight during the landing process. Had InSight failed to land, the MarCOs would have served as black box data recorders, Klesh told Ars.
The success of the MarCOs changed the perception of small satellites and planetary science. A few months after their mission ended, the European Space Agency announced that it would send two CubeSats on its “Hera” mission to a binary asteroid system. European engineers specifically cited the success of the MarCOs in their decision to send along CubeSats on the asteroid mission.
The concept of interplanetary small satellite missions also spurred interest in the emerging new space industry. “That mission got our attention at Virgin Orbit,” said Will Pomerantz, director of special projects at the California-based launch company. “We were inspired by it, and we wondered what else we might be able to do.”
After the MarCO missions, Pomerantz said, the company began to receive phone calls from research groups about LauncherOne, Virgin’s small rocket that is dropped from a 747 aircraft before igniting its engine. How many kilograms could LauncherOne put into lunar orbit? Could the company add a highly energetic third stage? Ideas for missions to Venus, the asteroids, and Mars poured in.
Polish scientists believe they can build a spacecraft with a mass of 50kg or less (each of the MarCO spacecraft weighed 13.5kg) that can take high-quality images of Mars and its moon, Phobos. Such a spacecraft might also be able to study the Martian atmosphere or even find reservoirs of liquid water beneath the surface of Mars. Access to low-cost launch was a key enabler of the idea.
Absent this new mode of planetary exploration, Pomerantz noted, a country like Poland might only be able to participate as one of several secondary partners on a Mars mission. Now it can get full credit. “With even a modest mission like this, it could really put Poland on the map,” Pomerantz said.
NASA has announced its latest batch of small business grants, providing more than 300 businesses a total of $51 million in crucial early-stage funding. These “phase I” projects receive up to $125,000 to help bring new technologies to market.
The Small Business Innovation Research/Technology Transfer programs help entrepreneurs and inventors transition their work from lab to commercial availability. The money is like a grant, not an investment, and Phase I recipients are eligible for larger Phase II grants if they’re warranted.
This year’s selections, as always, cover dozens of disciplines and apply to a wide range of industries. Among NASA’s own highlights in a news release are high-power solar arrays, a smart air traffic control system for urban flight, a water purification system for use on the moon and improved lithium-ion batteries.
There’s even one award for a company making “a compact sterilizer for use on spacecraft materials” that could also be employed by health workers.
Perusing the lists I was struck by the number of neuromorphic computing efforts, from radiation-hardened chips to software techniques. I take these to be chips and approaches that utilize and accelerate machine learning methods, rather than attempts at computers that truly employ the spikes and plasticity of actual neuronal networks.
The 2020 Phase II announcements won’t come for a while — NASA just released 2019’s last month.
The SBIR program is one of the federal government’s inadvertently best-kept secrets, with billions allocated to a dozen agencies to distribute to small businesses. You can learn more at SBIR.gov.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks surrounded by Small Business Administration Administrator Jovita Carranza, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) during a signing ceremony for the “Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act,” approving additional coronavirus disease (COVID-19) relief for the U.S. economy and hospitals treating people sickened by the pandemic, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
In 14 days, the Small Business Administration processed 14 years’ worth of loans, in the first round of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program. The second round has been an entirely different story.
After a rush to replenish the program with $310 billion in additional funding, the second funding round began April 27. More than a month into round two, there’s more than $120 billion still left unallocated for small businesses.
Compare that to the first round, where in less than two weeks, during an unprecedented economic crisis, over a million loans accounted for some $350 billion in funding.
As of May 30, 4.4 million loans have been made in both rounds of the PPP program for a total loan value of $510.2 billion.
The amount is lower than had been last reported by the agency a week earlier. The SBA said the totals reflect cancellations including duplicative loans, loans not closed for any reason and loans that had been paid off.
The SBA declined to comment on demand for the program.
Since the average loan amount has fallen in value from the first round of funding, to $114,000, some say the capital is reaching truly small businesses. But the question remains — why has funding demand dampened in round two, when many small businesses are still hurting?
A few things are at play on Main Street, according to Richard Hunt, president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers’ Association. He cited potential audits for businesses who take on the loans, enhanced unemployment that may make it difficult for businesses to lure workers back to the job and duplicative applications, which canceled one another out, as factors.
Some businesses are also likely concerned about adhering to the law as written in order to have the loan forgiven.
Small business borrowers need to spend 75% of the loan on payroll and the remaining 25% on other expenses such as rent and utilities, and use the loan within eight weeks of disbursement, among other rules, in order to avoid repayment, which means they may be reluctant to apply.
“The fear factor is real,” Hunt said. “The 75/25 formula, maybe that was too high, and the rules are too complex.”
The CBA is calling on Congress to forgive loans of less than $150,000 in part to encourage small businesses to borrow and begin using the money. It added that such a move would save more than $7 billion and tens of millions of hours of paperwork. A letter advocating for this change says in part, “This threshold would account for 85 percent of total PPP recipients, but less than 26 percent of PPP loan dollars. Lenders would continue to meet the PPP requirements provided by SBA for these loans, but the loan forgiveness process would be faster for these small businesses.”
Hunt said that while borrowers have received the loan and may be waiting to use it, it’s unlikely that other potential changes from Congress to the 75/25 formula and the time period in which to use the loan will encourage more borrowing in round two.
“If I were a small business owner, and I knew my livelihood was at stake, I would have applied by now,” he said. “I don’t see a massive rush into the banks because some of the rules change.”
Recent National Federation of Independent Business survey data of its membership show that most small businesses interested in the loan have already applied for it. Those not applying may not be able to use the loan easily or simply may not realize they are eligible for the program, according to the findings.
Applications and demand in round one were also pacing differently, said Kevin Kuhlman, the NFIB’s vice president of federal government relations. The replenished funding allowed businesses on the sidelines to think about what aid might be needed.
“Everyone knew round one would go quickly, and everyone was encouraged to borrow the maximum amount — it was first-come, first-served and there may not be more coming,” Kuhlman said. “Everyone took a deep collective breath in round two when the funding came.”
Changing guidance may have also kept some businesses on the sidelines. The SBA and Treasury have issued new or updated guidance about a dozen times since the program was put into place on forgiveness, audits, eligibility and more. Beyond that, taking on such a loan might not be a worthy endeavor for small businesses unsure what the future holds.
“There is no doubt in my mind that PPP restrictions have dampened demand,” said Karen Kerrigan, president and CEO of advocacy group The SBE Council. “Many will receive minimal forgiveness, and given the uncertainty of economic recovery and when many can reopen, business owners fear for their survival and do not want to take on additional debt.”
Get all the latest news on coronavirus and more delivered daily to your inbox. Sign up here.
Federal officials on Friday warned small businesses to be alert for scammers looking to take advantage of federal aid for entrepreneurs struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.
The $2 trillion CARES act, passed by Congress in March, set aside $349 billion worth of loans for small businesses.
A diner inside the Horseshoe Cafe in Wickenburg, Ariz., this past Friday. (AP)
Under the program, small businesses may apply for loans through the Small Business Administration (SBA). The SBA did not initiate loans, nor did it require information already provided in the application.
The feds warned entrepreneurs that anyone asking for money was “not legitimate, nor are emails that end in anything but ‘.gov’.”
“Those who prey on others look for opportunities like the various loans provided to small businesses. United States Attorneys and our respective law enforcement partners, like the FBI, are on the lookout for those predators. We strongly encourage those who become aware of such scams to report it to the authorities so we can take action,” said U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia Bill Powell.
Eugene Kowel, the acting special agent in charge for the FBI in Pittsburgh, urged companies to use backup and malware-detection systems and to train employees “to be skeptical of emails, attachments and websites they don’t recognize.”