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    Pluto’s heart-shaped basin might not hide an ocean after all

    Rather than a vast ocean, Pluto’s heart might be hiding a huge, heavy treasure.

    Computer simulations suggest that an object about 730 kilometers wide, slightly larger than the asteroid Vesta, could have slammed into the dwarf planet billions of years ago, forming the famous Sputnik Planitia and leaving behind a rocky remnant, researchers report April 15 in Nature Astronomy.

    Sputnik Planitia first appeared in images taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it zipped past Pluto in 2015 (SN: 7/15/15). The heart-shaped feature, which has roughly the same area as the Democratic Republic of Congo, sits three to four kilometers below the rest of Pluto’s surface and is filled with frozen nitrogen. More

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    Our picture of habitability on Europa, a top contender for hosting life, is changing

    THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS — On stage, before a silent assembly of scientists, many of whom are experts on alien worlds, planetary scientist Paul Byrne assumed his position behind the podium. He had come to present research on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that almost certainly harbors a subsurface ocean. The moon is thought to be among the most promising places to explore for life in our solar system. But much of that promise clings to an unknown — the geologic activity of Europa’s seafloor.

    “I don’t think there’s anything happening on the ocean floor,” said Byrne, of Washington University in St. Louis, to the crowd gathered at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on March 11. More

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    The desert planet in ‘Dune’ is plausible, according to science

    Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune has been praised for its worldbuilding. Herbert created complex societies, religions and economic systems all with rich histories.

    Most famous of Herbert’s worlds is the desert planet Arrakis, nicknamed Dune, with its harsh climate and giant sandworms. The planet is the setting for most of the novel and movies based on the book. The second installment of the latest imagining from director Denis Villeneuve, Dune: Part Two, opens in theaters March 1. More

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    Odysseus’ historic moon mission comes to an end, for now

    Odysseus has exceeded engineers’ expectations during its odyssey on the moon. NASA confirmed that the spindly solar-powered robotic lander, built and operated by the Houston-based private U.S. company Intuitive Machines, has been alive and collecting data since it touched down, and toppled over, on the lunar surface on February 22.

    “What a magnificent job that lander did,” said Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus during a NASA news briefing on February 28. “So much data and information and science. It’s just an incredible testament to how robust that little spacecraft is, so we’re really happy with that.”

    On February 27, Odysseus’ narrow-field-of-view camera took this image of the lander on the lunar surface. The lander is slightly tipped over.Official Intuitive Machines Photos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

    The spacecraft, which carried payloads from universities, industry and NASA, was the first American spacecraft to perform a soft landing on the moon in more than 50 years (SN: 2/22/24). Odysseus, or Odie as it’s nicknamed, is slowly running out of power, and scientists expect to put it into sleep mode February 28, after roughly six days on the lunar surface. They will try to reawaken Odie in about three weeks when the sun hits the lander’s solar panels again.

    Much like its namesake, the epic hero from the Greek classic The Odyssey, the spacecraft Odysseus underwent trials and tribulations in its journey. Its autonomous landing system’s laser range finder malfunctioned, causing engineers to scramble for a solution that involved two extra hours in orbit and reconfiguring a couple backup lasers on a NASA payload. After a nail-biting descent, Odysseus’s landing gear caught on the sloped ground or possibly a crevice, breaking the gear and sending the spacecraft gently tipping over on its side. More

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    NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex nabbed over 120 grams of space rocks from asteroid Bennu

    It’s official: NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft snagged 121.6 grams of pristine space rocks when it bopped the asteroid Bennu four years ago, more than double the mission’s official science goal, the agency confirmed February 15.

    Launched in 2016, OSIRIS-Rex is NASA’s first mission to collect samples from an asteroid and return them to Earth so scientists can study our solar system’s origins. After performing its grab-and-go procedure from the diamond-shaped Bennu, the spacecraft dropped its canister into our atmosphere last year (SN: 9/22/23). Engineers swiftly shuttled it off to a specially designed sample curation center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it was placed in a hermetic glove box to prevent contamination by terrestrial material.

    The diamond-shaped asteroid Bennu, seen here during OSIRIS-Rex’s approach, is a loose rubble pile held together by gravity.NASA Goddard, University of Arizona

    While researchers have been able to analyze some rocks and dust already, weighing the full sample has been delayed by a couple stuck screws that prevented anyone from accessing the entire contents of the capsule (SN: 10/11/23). Some clever workarounds finally unlocked the full sample on January 10, and it will now be distributed to scientists around the world for study.

    To learn how engineers got the canister open, as well as what kinds of science the sample will teach us, Science News spoke with Harold Connolly, a geologist at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., who oversees analysis of the material from Bennu. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. More

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    Saturn’s ‘Death Star’ moon might contain a hidden ocean

    An uncanny resemblance to the Death Star might not be the only intriguing thing about Saturn’s moon Mimas. It could also harbor a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its pockmarked exterior.

    A new look at data from NASA’s Cassini probe reveals that the point in Mimas’ orbit where it comes closest to Saturn changed slightly over 13 years, researchers report February 7 in Nature. Because Mimas’ internal composition affects the gravitational dance between the moon and its planet, these orbital dynamics, along with some previously seen moon wobbles, point to a liquid interior, astronomer Valéry Lainey of the Paris Observatory and colleagues say. More

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    An asteroid may have exploded over Antarctica about 2.5 million years ago

    Around 2.5 million years ago, an asteroid may have exploded over Antarctica. 

    The evidence comes from a chemical analysis of more than 100 tiny pieces of rock entrained within the White Continent’s ice, researchers report in the Feb. 1 Earth and Planetary Science Letters. The timing makes the midair detonation the oldest known airburst, the team says. Only two other ancient airburst events are known in the geologic record, dating to 480,000 and 430,000 years ago (SN: 3/31/21).   More

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    Bacteria that can make humans sick could survive on Mars

    Future interplanetary explorers beware: Hitchhiking bacteria brought to Mars on human bodies might not only survive the harsh conditions on the Red Planet’s surface but also potentially thrive.

    Recent experiments exposed four common disease-causing microbes to a simulated Mars-like environment, with its lack of water, scant atmospheric pressure, deadly ultraviolet radiation and toxic salts. The bacteria remained alive for various periods of time and, in some cases, even grew in the imitation Martian sands, researchers report in the January Astrobiology. More