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NASA’s New Horizon Set Out To Make History

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.

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New Horizons team members are seen during a press conference prior to the flyby of Ultima Thule by the New Horizons spacecraft, Dec. 31, 2018, at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. VOA

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.

Pluto, NASA, new horizons
This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. NASA launched the probe in 2006; it’s about the size of a baby grand piano. VOA

“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.

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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)

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“It Is A More Rugged Surface Than We Predicted,” NASA’s Plan to Scoop Up Dirt from Asteroid Hits Complication

A Japanese spacecraft, Hayabusa2, touched down on another asteroid in February, also on a mission to collect material. Japan managed to return some tiny particles in 2010 from its first asteroid mission.

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This artist's rendering made available by NASA in July 2016 shows the mapping of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. VOA

NASA’s plan to scoop up dirt and gravel from an asteroid has hit a snag, but scientists say they can overcome it.

The asteroid Bennu was thought to have wide, open areas suitable for the task. But a recently arrived spacecraft revealed the asteroid is covered with boulders and there don’t seem to be any big, flat spots that could be used to grab samples.

In a paper released Tuesday by the journal Nature, scientists say they plan to take a closer look at a few smaller areas that might work. They said sampling from those spots poses “a substantial challenge.”

“But I am confident this team is up to that substantial challenge,” the project’s lead scientist, Dante Lauretta, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.

The spacecraft, called Osiris-Rex, is scheduled to descend close to the surface in the summer of 2020. It will extend a robot arm to pick up the sample, which will be returned to Earth in 2023. The spacecraft began orbiting Bennu at the end of last year, after spending two years chasing down the space rock.

FILE - This Nov. 16, 2018, image provide by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu.
This Nov. 16, 2018, image provide by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu. VOA

When the mission was planned, scientists were aiming to take dirt and gravel from an area measuring at least 55 yards (50 meters) in diameter that was free of boulders or steep slopes, which would pose a hazard.

“It is a more rugged surface than we predicted,” said Lauretta, of the University of Arizona in Tucson and one of the paper’s authors. But he said he believed a sample could still be collected.

NASA project manager Rich Burns said a spot will be chosen this summer and the setback won’t delay the sampling.

Patrick Taylor, who studies asteroids at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston but didn’t participate in the spacecraft mission, noted in a telephone interview that the spacecraft was evidently maneuvering more accurately and precisely than had been expected.

“That gives me confidence they will be able to attempt a sample acquisition,” he said.

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NASA project manager Rich Burns said a spot will be chosen this summer and the setback won’t delay the sampling. VOA

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Bennu is 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) from Earth. It’s estimated to be just over 1,600 feet (500 meters) across and is the smallest celestial body ever orbited by a spacecraft.

A Japanese spacecraft, Hayabusa2, touched down on another asteroid in February, also on a mission to collect material. Japan managed to return some tiny particles in 2010 from its first asteroid mission. (VOA)