Just 33 minutes into the New Year, NASA’s New Horizons probe will make space exploration history, flying by the most distant body ever explored.
The probe, launched in January 2006, will fly within 3,540 kilometers of 2014 MU69, dubbed Ultima Thule, a Latin phrase meaning beyond the known world.
In 2015, New Horizons flew by Pluto, then the farthest object visited by a spacecraft from Earth. This time the encounter will take place 1.6 billion kilometers past Pluto, some 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth.
“Today is the day we explore worlds farther than ever in history!! EVER,” tweeted the project’s lead scientist, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.
He called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps on the moon in July 1969.
Ultima Thule was discovered in June 2014 by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which was trying to find new targets for New Horizons in the Kuiper Belt, the third region of the solar system.
New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million mission, will collect data for four hours after the flyby. After that the probe will return toward Earth to transmit a signal announcing its progress.
“I can’t promise you success. We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft,” Stern said at a news conference Monday. “By tomorrow, we’ll know how we did. So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons.” (VOA)
Scientists are analysing the images taken under harsh light conditions by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Camera of the area where the Vikram moon lander is likely to have touched down on the moon and it may be a while before they can locate it, project experts told IANS.
LRO project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Noah Petro, said on Wednesday that they were now analysing the images taken on Tuesday “and we will make a statement at some point when we can identify the lander.”
But he added, “It is important to remember that the illumination conditions right now where the lander may be are harsh.”
Therefore, it “could be difficult to identify right now (and it) may be a little longer before we have another opportunity to image the landing site next October 14” when the LRO next passes over that area of the moon.
The principal investigator for the LRO camera, Mark Robinson of Arizona State University, said that the last image of the area was acquired on Wednesday and will take time to analyse as there are “lots and lots and lots of pixels” to go through.
A NASA statement carried a note of caution saying that when the LRO flew over the Vikram landing the “local lunar time was near dusk; large shadows covered much of the area.”
The LROC “acquired images around the targeted landing site, but the exact location of the lander was not known so the lander may not be in the camera field of view,” NASA said.
“The LROC team will analyze these new images and compare them to previous images to see if the lander is visible (it may be in shadow or outside the imaged area),” it added.