How long does it take a team of rocket scientists to remove two screws? When the screws they’re working on are keeping a priceless sample of asteroid safe, it’s about three months. That’s how long NASA has been working on the OSIRIS-REx sample return canister, which came back to Earth from asteroid Bennu back in September. The container was crammed full of asteroid bits, thanks in part to an overly energetic impact between the sample-collecting boom and Bennu. There was so much stuff that planetary scientists were able to recover about 70 grams of material that was covering the outside of the sealed container; this must have been a boon to the engineers, who got to figure out how to open the jammed cover of the container without anyone breathing down their necks for samples to study. The problem was a pair of stuck fasteners out of the 35 holding the lid on the container; the solution was far more complicated than a spritz of WD-40 and a little bit of heating with an oxy-acetylene torch. Engineers had to design two “clamp-like tools” and test them on a mock-up to make sure they wouldn’t contaminate the sample. We’d love to know more about these tools; trust us, we’ll be looking into this closely. If we find anything, a full article will be forthcoming.
Big news this week a bit closer to home as an Air Alaska flight suffered a serious oopsie shortly after takeoff from Portland, Oregon. You’ve no doubt heard more about “door plugs” in the beleaguered 737 Max-9 by now than you ever wanted to, but for those still left wondering how such things are attached to the plane, A&P mechanic Juan Brown has an excellent primer over on his Blancolirio channel on YouTube. The look inside the mechanism makes it clear that the only physical way the plug could have departed the plane as cleanly as it did was if the locking bolts on the hinge fittings were missing. The National Transportation Safety Board, one of the regulatory bodies investigating the incident, says the bolts may never have been installed during assembly of the essentially brand-new plane. For what it’s worth, six fasteners holding the guide roller plates to the fuselage on plug on the opposite side of the plane were tightened at the Boeing factory when they were found to be loose during assembly, according to a report by Air Currents. That report has an excellent photo of the plug mechanism that should help clear up any mechanical questions you may have. It’s scary stuff and must have been absolutely terrifying for the passengers. Luckily the flight was still on climb-out, so everyone still had their seatbelts on; we doubt anyone would have been as lucky as this iPhone was had they departed the plane with it.
So it seems that the good people of Lexington, Kentucky have taken upon themselves the responsibility of making contact with extraterrestrial intelligence on behalf of planet Earth. Over the Christmas holiday the local tourism agency, VisitLEX, coupled a “powerful laser” to a telescope and beamed a message to any technologically advanced civilizations that may be extant on the rocky planets orbiting in the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1, a mere 39 light years away. The message is a low-resolution monochromatic bitmap with icons representing the many attractions that Lexington has to offer, including bourbon and water, horses, and prime numbers, the last of which honestly would be the attraction of choice for us. For anyone worried about the risks of making first contact with an alien species in an advertisement, relax; from the look of the “powerful laser” attached to a tiny reflector telescope teetering on milkcrates, it’s as likely as not the message won’t get there. And really, it could be worse — what if Newark, New Jersey pulled the same stunt?
Finally, back in July, we covered the story of how the space shuttle Endeavour was getting a new home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles — a full-stack, launch-configuration display, complete with SRBs and external fuel tank. It’s a massive undertaking, to say the least. The orbiter itself had already been on static display at the museum, and the solid rocket boosters were erected and anchored in place over the last few months. Now ET-94, the last flight-qualified external tank in existence, is being moved roughly 1,000 feet (300 meters) in preparation for the big lift into place in the final stack-up. By the time is published the tank should be in place. We’ll try to find video of the lift — should be fascinating stuff.