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)
Returning astronauts to the moon in 2024 could cost about $30 billion, or roughly the same price tag as the Apollo 11 spaceflight when factoring in inflation, NASA has said.
“For the whole programme, to get a sustainable presence on the moon, we’re looking at between $20 and $30 billion,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a TV interview on Friday, though noting that that figure does not include money already spent on the rocket and space capsule the agency plans to use for the programme, Efe news reported.
The total cost of the Apollo programme that the US launched in 1961 and concluded in 1972 was $25 billion. The climax of that programme came nearly 50 years ago when two astronauts landed on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission, which cost $6 billion at the time, equivalent to $30 billion today.
NASA, which has dubbed its current lunar programme Artemis (after Apollo’s twin sister, the Greek goddess of the hunt, the wilderness and the moon), plans to send one male and one female astronaut to the moon in 2024.
Bridenstine recalled that the main difference between the Apollo programme and the Artemis program is that the former culminated with brief stays on the moon while the latter will entail a permanent human presence there.
The plan will involve the recruitment of private companies and international partners, the construction of a lunar space station and manned landings at the moon’s south pole within five years.
The entire project will be framed as a practice run for a future mission to Mars. The programme includes an unmanned mission around the moon in 2020 and a manned mission that also will orbit the moon two years later. Then one male astronaut and – for the first time – a female astronaut would set foot on the lunar surface in 2024.
The three lunar missions will be delivered into space by the Space Launch System, a rocket being developed by NASA and Boeing that will be the largest ever built once it is fully assembled. That rocket will send into orbit a new spacecraft known as Orion, whose lead contractor is Lockheed Martin.
Besides these missions exclusively handled by NASA, five other launches will be carried out to place in lunar orbit the components for construction of the Gateway mini-space station, which will serve as a staging post for moon landings. Those five missions between 2022 and 2024 will be operated by private companies, according to NASA’s plans. (IANS)