Tag: New Horizons

NASA’s First Up-Close Images Of The Most Distant Object Ever Explored

NASA’s New Horizons’ team released the first close-up images from Ultima Thule on Wednesday afternoon.

Even at the speed of light, signals from the outer solar system take a long time to reach Earth; however, the pictures were well worth the wait.

They reveal Ultima Thule is actually two objects stuck together. That’s prompted them to dub the big lobe “Ultima” and the small one “Thule.”

And while the first images may still be a bit disappointing, the best pictures will be arriving in the days and weeks ahead.

We have far less than one percent of the data that’s stored on [New Horizons],” spacecraft lead Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said at a press conference Wednesday.

New Year’s flyby

As billions of people across the world ushered in the new year, the New Horizons spacecraft whizzed by a far-flung space rock named Ultima Thule, making it the most distant object ever visited by humanity.

Traveling at a speed of nearly 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) per second, New Horizons’ didn’t take long to zip past Ultima Thule, which is only about 20 miles (30 km) long and 10 miles (15 km) wide.

During its closest approach at 12:33 a.m. EST on January 1, New Horizons passed within just 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of the mysterious bowling-pin-shaped rock, collecting data all the while.

Within just 10 hours, at 10:28 a.m. EST, the spacecraft successfully “phoned home,” confirming to NASA scientists that it had survived its close encounter with the distant object.

Since New Horizons sent its first post-flyby message, the mission team slowly but surely has been receiving a trickle of data on Ultima Thule (pronounced TOOL-ee, a Latin phrase meaning “a place beyond the known world”), which is located a staggering 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km) from Earth.

What we know so far

Ultima Thule is tiny, icy body known as a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). KBOs are a distinct class of solar system objects that lie far beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto.

Although over a thousand KBOs already have been discovered Ultima Thule wasn’t found until 2014.

Because Ultima Thule is so small and distant, it’s very hard for researchers to tease out many of its attributes, even with the most advanced telescopes available today.

But from early on, astronomers figured the small body was likely made of dirty ice and rock.

Early observations of Ultima Thule taken by New Horizons suggested that the rock is rather elongated and shaped somewhat like a bowling pin.

Today’s imagery reveal that the world is actually two objects which were stuck together in a slow cosmic collision.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

All Four Last Tuesday Rocket Launches Postponed

If you’re a space fan, Christmas comes a week early this year. There are four — count ’em, four! — launches scheduled to take place last Tuesday (Dec. 18), and you can watch them all live.

The action begins in the morning with a one-two punch. At 9:34 a.m. EST (1434 GMT), SpaceX plans to launch a next-generation GPS satellite for the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Nineteen minutes later, at 9:30 a.m. EST (1430 GMT), Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard capsule will take to the skies from West Texas on the 10th uncrewed test flight of the reusable vehicle.

You can watch both missions live here at Space.com, or directly via SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Then, at 11:37 a.m. EST (1637 GMT), an Arianespace Soyuz rocket will loft a spy satellite for the French military called CSO-1. You can watch that liftoff, which will take place from Kourou, French Guiana, at Arianespace’s website.

Another spysat launch will wrap things up tonight. A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the classified NROL-71 spacecraft for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 8:57 p.m. EST (5:57 p.m. local California time; 0157 GMT on Dec. 19).

You can watch that one live on Space.com as well, or directly via ULA (though it appears the weather may not cooperate for an on-time liftoff).

There will be another flurry of spaceflight activity around the new year. NASA’s asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which has been flying along with the space rock Bennu since Dec. 3, will slip into orbit around that object on Dec. 31.

Just hours later, NASA’s New Horizons probe will zoom past the small, distant object Ultima Thule, which lies about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

That dwarf planet was New Horizons’ first flyby target, you probably recall; the spacecraft cruised past Pluto in July 2015, returning stunning images of water-ice mountains, vast plains of nitrogen ice and other dramatic landscapes.

And sometime in the first few days of January, China’s Chang’e 4 mission will drop onto the far side of the moon, if all goes according to plan.

Chang’e 4, which launched on Dec. 7, consists of a lander and rover, which will touch down within the huge South Pole-Aitken Basin. No probe has ever touched down on the lunar far side, which always faces away from Earth.

Update for Dec. 19: After all four launches scheduled for Tuesday were delayed, SpaceX and Blue Origin have again postponed their launches. Arianespace and United Launch Alliance are on track for a Dec. 19 launch, while the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully launched its GSAT-7A communications satellite into orbit.

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NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Snaps Image From 3.8 Billion Miles Away From Earth

At first glance it might not look like much – but, with a fuzzy purple and green photo, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has made history.

On December 5, New Horizons captured an image said to be the farthest from Earth ever taken, at a staggering 3.79 billion miles away.

And, just hours later, it beat its own record.

According to NASA, the remarkable false-color images sent back by New Horizons are also the closest-ever images captured of objects in the Kuiper Belt.

When New Horizon’s snapped a photo with its telescopic camera for a routine calibration frame of the Wishing Well star cluster, it was farther into space than even NASA’s Voyager 1 had been when it captured its famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image of Earth, the space agency says.

At the time, New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers) from Earth.

Voyager, by comparison, was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers) from Earth when it captured its famous photo in 1990.

According to NASA, New Horizons is now the fifth spacecraft to fly beyond the outer planets of our solar system.

Hours after its first record-breaking image on Dec 5, it captured another. The latter shows a look at Kuiper Belt objects HZ84 and 2012 HE85.

The images were captured using the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). And, NASA says they’re the closest images yet of objects in this region.

New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts – first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”

New Horizons is now on its way to a KBO named 2014 MU69, with which it’s expected to make a close encounter on Jan 1, 2019.

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NASA Confirms New Horizons Is Hurtling Towards Some Barren Space Rock Named 2014 MU69

Remember how excited you were last summer?

No, not because you found a booth at the state fair selling deep fried beer. I’m talking about New Horizons, sillies.

Well get ready for another bout of excitement, because NASA has greenlit New Horizons’ next target: a lump of rock out in the Kuiper Belt called 2014 MU69.

And don’t worry if you’re still exhausted from last year’s Pluto-brations (or the Juno mission’s orbital insertion happening this July 4th).

New Horizons isn’t scheduled to rendezvous with 2014 MH69 until January 1st, 2019, so you have plenty of time to get ready.

Because what better way is there to spend your New Years’ hangover than sitting in the dark and waiting for a space probe five and a half billion miles away to send a few squawks home confirming that it passed its target successfully?

But wait, you ask. Doesn’t this 2014 MU69 character sound familiar? It should.

Nineties kids will remember that in season three of Big Bad Beetleborgs, a cyborg monster called 2014 MU69 kidnaps Flabber, leading Drew, Jo, and Roland on a wild chase through the Hillhurst suburbs.

Just kidding, everyone knows that show only had two seasons.

2014 MU69 should really only sound familiar to Pluto-heads who were paying attention last August when NASA first announced the Kuiper Belt object as New Horizons’ next target. So what is new?

Well, this is NASA just doubling down, saying it has allotted funding to the mission. Yay, money!

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Pass it on: New Scientist

New Horizons Discovers Pluto Has Blue Skies and Frozen Water

The first crewed mission to Pluto is going to be a master class in homesickness. After traveling 4.7 billion miles to the icy rock, those future pioneers breathing bottled air, bundled in awkward space clothes, buoyant in low gravity will have little to remind them of home.

But upon landing, they might just ease their pangs of longing by gazing up into the dwarf planet’s sky—which, scientists now know, is blue just like Earth’s.

NASA broke the news today by sharing the above photo of Pluto’s cerulean halo, taken in July by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Like Earth’s heavenly hue, Pluto’s blue sky is caused by tiny, sunlight-scattering particles in the atmosphere. Those particles probably begin as molecular nitrogen and other trace gases.

The sun’s ultraviolet rays break down and ionize these molecules, which then combine into larger (though still microscopic) particles.

The particles aren’t blue themselves; they’re reddish to grey, and are heavy enough that they eventually fall back down to the dwarf planet’s surface.

But wait! There’s more! See those conveniently-colored blue blobs on the above close-up? Those are frozen water, confirmed by combining spectral infrared and visible light data taken by two of New Horizons’ imagers.

What’s compelling to scientists (besides the fact that water exists) is why it appears where it does: on rocky outcrops near craters, and between mountains.

Another mystery is the water’s hue, which appears bright red in color imagery.

The New Horizons team thinks this indicates some sort of relationship between the surface ice and those atmospheric particles responsible for Pluto’s blue sky.

Maybe I’m biased, but those pretty skies and chunks of water make Pluto seem like a pretty good setting for Hollywood’s next lost-in-space blockbuster.

Damon, you up for getting stranded on yet another world?

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Cassini Is Gone. Here Are the Next Space Missions To Watch Out For.

Humanity has had a long love affair with the Red Planet. We’ve launched about 20 successful missions to study Mars since the 1960s, including the still operational Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.

It’s also a source of intrigue for scientists searching for clues to where life may have once existed in the solar system.

In May 2018, NASA will launch the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, or InSight, mission.

This project will drop a stationary lander on Martian soil with the goal of understanding what happened at the rocky planet’s very beginning.

“It’s a mission to map out the deep interior of Mars all the way down to the very center of the planet,” said W. Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

It will take detailed geophysical measurements to determine the thickness of the planet’s core, mantle and crust.

“It’s like using a microscope instead of looking at it from across the room,” he said.

While nestled on the ground, the InSight lander will listen for seismic activity and small vibrations — marsquakes.

Using a burrowing device known as a heat flow probe, it will dig about 16 feet into the surface — making the deepest man-made hole on Mars — and take temperature readings.

Another tool will examine the speed of Mars’ rotation and the wobble it makes as it spins along its axis, similar to the wobble in a spinning top.

Joining Curiosity and Opportunity will be the less imaginatively named Mars 2020 Rover. Planned for launch in, you guessed it, 2020, this rover will land on the planet that same year.

Unlike its predecessors, this mission is intended to send samples from the Martian surface back to Earth to help with the search for evidence of ancient life on Mars.

The Mars 2020 Rover is essentially part of a three-step plan to collect bits of Mars and study them on Earth, which has never been done before.

The rover will collect 37 samples in test tubes that are immediately sealed. Once it has collected all of its samples it will find a spot to deposit them.

To retrieve them, the thought is that a second spacecraft will land near that site, collect the samples, put them into a rocket on its back, and launch them into space.

Finally, the hope is that a third craft will sweep across Mars and grab the basketball-sized container with the samples and blast back to Earth.

The European Space Agency and the Russian space agency are also in on the Martian land rush. In their joint venture, ExoMars will land a European rover and a Russian surface platform to Mars.

The Europa Clipper mission will sail past Jupiter’s icy moon Europa on some 40 to 45 flybys sometime in the 2020s.

Scientists believe that Europa has an ocean of salty water beneath its crust, and the NASA mission, will help determine if the moon has the recipe for life: a splash of liquid water, a sprinkle of chemical ingredients, and an energy source that can bake up some biology.

Also eyeing Jupiter’s satellites is the E.S.A.’s JUICE mission, which stands for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, and is planned for launch in 2022.

In addition to Europa, the space probe will study Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, and Callisto, which has more impact craters than any other object in the solar system.

JUICE will use ice-penetrating radar to peek beneath the moons’ surfaces and a laser to measure its geological features.

At the end of its mission JUICE will be put into orbit around Ganymede and become the first spacecraft to orbit a moon other than our own.

Scientists will also explore Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, which consist of two giant asteroid clusters caught in the gaseous planet’s gravitational field.

NASA’s will investigate six of these rocks in a path that takes it through both asteroid clouds. It will launch in 2021 and study these half dozen rocks from 2027 until 2033, according to NASA.

Although navigating an asteroid belt isn’t nearly as precarious as it appears in movies, it’s still a calculated operation, especially if your goal is to rendezvous with one of the space rocks on its orbit around the solar system.

There are three upcoming asteroid missions to be on the lookout for.

Already on its way, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa-2 mission will arrive at asteroid 162173 Ryugu in 2018.

The mission will land a small probe on the surface, as well as three hopping mini-rovers, according to NASA. After the lander drops from the Hayabusa-2 mother ship, it will collect samples.

But the main goal of Hayabusa-2 is to return to Earth with those samples in December 2020, after exploring the asteroid for more than a year.

As the “2” in the name implies, this will be Japan’s second round-trip to an asteroid. The first Hayabusa launched in 2003, reached its target in 2005, and returned in 2010.

NASA’s Osiris-Rex launched on Sept. 8, 2016, and in August 2018 it will approach the asteroid Bennu, a 1,650-foot-wide, carbon-rich rock.

After catching up with the asteroid, which speeds around the sun at about 63,000 miles per hour, Osiris-Rex will survey it for about a year.

Then in 2020, it will perform a touch-and-go maneuver with a robotic arm to collect a sample from its surface.

It will come in contact with the asteroid for only about five seconds, enough time to release a burst of nitrogen gas to rustle up sediments.

It can collect up to about four pounds of samples. Then the spacecraft will leave Bennu in March 2021, arriving at Earth in 2023.

The samples will tell us about the composition of the asteroid as well as help reveal mysteries about the origin of our solar system.

What also makes Bennu interesting is that NASA predicts that it has a 1 in 2,500 chance of hitting Earth toward the end of the 22nd century.

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Pass it on: Popular Science