Sunday September 22, 2019
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New Year Starts With Flyby Past The Solar System’s Edge

The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s, while the nuclear power and other spacecraft systems are still good.

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NASA, earth
New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, speaks about new data received from the New Horizons spacecraft during a press conference after the spacecraft completed a flyby of Ultima Thule, Jan. 1, 2019. VOA

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft pulled off the most distant exploration of another world Tuesday, skimming past a tiny, icy object 4 billion miles from Earth that looks to be shaped like a bowling pin.

Flight controllers in Maryland declared success 10 hours after the high-risk, middle-of-the-night encounter at the mysterious body known as Ultima Thule on the frozen fringes of our solar system, an astounding 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

“I don’t know about all of you, but I’m really liking this 2019 thing so far,” lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute said to applause. “I’m here to tell you that last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly.”

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

3 years past Pluto

The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 years after New Horizons’ unprecedented swing past Pluto.

For Ultima Thule — which wasn’t even known when New Horizons departed Earth in 2006 — the endeavor was more difficult. The spacecraft zoomed within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of it, more than three times closer than the Pluto flyby.

Operating on autopilot, New Horizons was out of radio contact with controllers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory from late Monday afternoon until late Tuesday morning. Scientists wanted the spacecraft staring down Ultima Thule and collecting data, not turning toward Earth to phone home.

Mission operations manager Alice Bowman said she was more nervous this time than she was with Pluto in 2015 because of the challenges and distance, so vast that messages take more than six hours, one way, to cross the 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers). When a solid radio link finally was acquired and team members reported that their spacecraft systems were green, or good, she declared with relief: “We have a healthy spacecraft.” Later, she added to more applause: “We did it again.”

NASA, earth
A new image of Ultima Thule, right, is displayed during a press conference featuring, from left, principal investigator Alan Stern, operations manager Alice Bowman, systems engineer Chris Hersman, and project scientist Hal Weaver. VOA

Flyby earns standing ovation

Cheers erupted in the control center and in a nearby auditorium, where hundreds more — still weary from the double countdowns on New Year’s Eve — gathered to await word. Scientists and other team members embraced and shared high-fives, while the spillover auditorium crowd gave a standing ovation.

Stern, Bowman and other key players soon joined their friends in the auditorium, where the celebration continued and a news conference took place. The speakers took delight in showing off the latest picture of Ultima Thule , taken just several hundred-thousand miles (1 million kilometers) before the 12:33 a.m. close approach.

“Ultima Thule is finally revealing its secrets to us,” said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins.

Based on the early, rudimentary images, Ultima Thule is highly elongated — about 20 miles by 10 miles (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). It’s also spinning end over end, although scientists don’t yet know how fast.

As for its shape, scientists say there are two possibilities.

Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another. A single body is more likely, they noted. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once better, closer pictures arrive.

By week’s end, “Ultima Thule is going to be a completely different world, compared to what we’re seeing now,” Weaver noted.

NASA, Earth
In this photo provided by NASA, a NASA scientist celebrates with school children at the exact moment that the New Horizons spacecraft made the closest approach of Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, Jan. 1, 2019. VOA

Color close-ups in February

Still, the best color close-ups won’t be available until February. Those images should reveal whether Ultima Thule has any rings or moons, or craters on its dark, reddish surface. Altogether, it will take nearly two years for all of New Horizons’ data to reach Earth.

The observations should help scientists ascertain how deep-freeze objects like Ultima Thule formed, along with the rest of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune.

“This mission’s always been about delayed gratification,” Stern reminded reporters. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto.

Also Read: NASA’s New Horizon Set Out To Make History

Its mission now totaling $800 million, the baby grand piano-sized New Horizons will keep hurtling toward the edge of the solar system, observing Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs, from afar, and taking cosmic particle measurements. Although NASA’s Voyagers crossed the Kuiper Belt on their way to true interstellar space, their 1970s-era instruments were not nearly as sophisticated as those on New Horizons, Weaver noted, and the twin spacecraft did not pass near any objects known at the time.

Next flyby 2020

The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s, while the nuclear power and other spacecraft systems are still good.

Bowman takes comfort and pleasure in knowing that long after New Horizons stops working, it “will keep going on and on.”

“There’s a bit of all of us on that spacecraft,” she said, “and it will continue after we’re long gone here on Earth.” (VOA)

Next Story

Scientists Analysing Images Taken by NASA of Vikram Moon Lander

Therefore, it could be difficult to identify right now (and it) may be a little longer before we have another opportunity

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Scientists, Images, NASA
But he added, "It is important to remember that the illumination conditions right now where the lander may be are harsh." Pixabay

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.

Scientists, Images, NASA
Scientists are analysing the images taken under harsh light conditions by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) Camera of the area. Pixabay

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.

Also Read- India Grapples with Credit Issues

Vikram lost contact with the Indian Space Research Organisation after it was launched by the Chandraayan 2 moon orbiter to touch down in the area of the moon’s south pole on September 6.

After following the intended trajectory, it deviated in the final moments during the last two kilometres of the descent and went silent.

Vikram carried a rover called Pragyan that was to have conducted experiments on the moon’s surface.

Aviation Week created some confusion on Wednesday with an erroneous headline, “NASA’s LRO fails to spot Chandraayan 2 Lander,” which was picked up by others.

Scientists, Images, NASA
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 . Pixabay

Both the scientists IANS spoke to said the headline was wrong.

Robinson said: “They are rather astonishing because we haven’t had the images to look at yet. I don’t know where that came from.”

Petro said, “The headline is wrong. That was actually posted even before we had the data on the ground.”

Also Read- Reliance JIO Won Race For The Most Subscribers; Airtel, VIL Lose

The publication later changed the headline to “NASA’s LRO Begins Search For Silent Chandrayaan-2 Lander.” (IANS)