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The asteroid Bennu’s rough surface as captured by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies spread throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments from the region:


See You, Space Cowboy. On Wednesday, April 7, the University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx spacecraft flew a “farewell tour” of the asteroid Bennu, which it has orbited since December 2018. OSIRIS-REx, which launched from Earth in September 2016, is slated to be the first American space mission to return a sample from the surface of an asteroid. The NASA spacecraft used a mechanical arm to capture bits of the asteroid’s dusty, rocky surface in October 2020. Since then, it has continued to orbit Bennu while ensuring its samples are secure and sufficient for mission criteria. As part of the “farewell tour,” OSIRIS-REx captured some final images of the sample-collection site. According to UA, this final flyby of Bennu was not part of the original mission schedule, but the observation run provided the team on Earth an opportunity to learn how the spacecraft’s contact with Bennu’s surface altered the sample site. OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to depart Bennu on May 10 and begin its two-year journey back to Earth. The spacecraft is planned to deliver the samples of Bennu to the Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24, 2023.


First Flight. A Tempe science educator has been selected to be on SpaceX’s first-ever private flight into orbit. Dr. Sian Proctor, who is an author, speaker and planetary science professor at South Mountain Community College, will join three other guests aboard billionaire Jared Isaacman’s SpaceX Inspiration4 flight—the first space mission to fly with only private citizens on board. The flight is scheduled for Sept. 15 and will take the crew into low-Earth orbit, more than 100 miles above the Earth’s surface. Proctor has long worked as a personality and expert in the field of science communication, working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, among others. She has promoted her work as an “analog astronaut,” (a person who conducts activities in simulated space conditions), but will get her first taste of true space later this year. 


Aviary Autotune. Scientists at the University of Arizona are using a tiny, wireless device attached to a bird’s head to rapidly change the pitch of their songs, which may lead to better understanding of speech in the human brain. Based out of the UA’s College of Engineering, the science team is studying songbirds because they are one of the few species that “share humans’ ability to learn new vocalizations.” The devices, created in assistant professor of biomedical engineering Philipp Gutruf’s lab, can modulate neuron groups in the bird’s brain, changing song pitch. UA says the team’s next goal is to expand device capabilities to also record neuron activity. This could allow researchers to visualize brain activity during song learning and performance to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying brain mechanisms. The paper “Wireless battery free fully implantable multimodal recording and neuromodulation tools for songbirds” was published in Nature Communications last week. 

“Because of the small size and light weight, the birds can move freely and live permanently with the implant without affecting their behavior or health, which opens up many possibilities to study the basis for vocal communication,” said co-senior author Julie Miller, an assistant professor of neuroscience and speech, language and hearing sciences at UA.

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