NASA spaceship zooms toward farthest world ever photographed

An artist’s illustration obtained from NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 — nicknamed ‘Ultima Thule’ — a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto. (AFP/NASA)
Updated 31 December 2018
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NASA spaceship zooms toward farthest world ever photographed

  • The US space agency will ring in the New Year with a live online broadcast to mark historic flyby of the mysterious object
  • ‘This is the frontier of planetary science’

TAMPA: A NASA spaceship is zooming toward the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever photographed by humankind, a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule some four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away.
The US space agency will ring in the New Year with a live online broadcast to mark historic flyby of the mysterious object in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt at 12:33 am January 1 (0533 GMT Tuesday).
A guitar anthem recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May — who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics — will be released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation of the flyby, as NASA commentators describe the close pass on www.nasa.gov/nasalive.
Real-time video of the actual flyby is impossible, since it takes more six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive.
But if all goes well, the first images should be in hand by the end of New Year’s Day.
And judging by the latest tweet from Alan Stern, the lead scientist on the New Horizons mission, the excitement among team members is palpable.
“IT’S HAPPENING!! Flyby is upon us! @NewHorizons2015 is healthy and on course! The farthest exploration of worlds in history!” he wrote on Saturday.
Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like — whether it is round or oblong or even if it is a single object or a cluster.
It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, and is believed to be 12-20 miles (20-30 kilometers) in size.
Scientists decided to study it with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet.
“At closest approach we are going to try to image Ultima at three times the resolution we had for Pluto,” said Stern.
“If we can accomplish that it will be spectacular.”
Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, the spacecraft aims to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of the surface of Ultima Thule.
The flyby will be fast, at a speed of nine miles (14 kilometers) per second.
Seven instruments on board will record high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition.
Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.
“Ultima Thule means ‘beyond Thule’ — beyond the borders of the known world — symbolizing the exploration of the distant Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt objects that New Horizons is performing, something never before done,” the US space agency said in a statement.
According to project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, mankind didn’t even know the Kuiper Belt — a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system — existed until the 1990s.
“This is the frontier of planetary science,” said Weaver.
“We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed — we think. We will find out.”
Despite the partial US government shutdown, sparked by a feud over funding for a border wall with Mexico between President Donald Trump and opposition Democrats, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine vowed that the US space agency would broadcast the flyby.
Normally, NASA TV and NASA’s website would go dark during a government shutdown.
NASA will also provide updates about another spacecraft, called OSIRIS-REx, that will enter orbit around the asteroid Bennu on New Year’s Eve, Bridenstine said.


NASA probe detects likely ‘marsquake’ — an interplanetary first

A life-size model of the spaceship Insight, NASA's first robotic lander dedicated to studying the deep interior of Mars, is shown at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, U.S. November 26, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 24 April 2019
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NASA probe detects likely ‘marsquake’ — an interplanetary first

  • A more distant quake would yield greater information about Mars’ interior because seismic waves would “penetrate deeper into the planet before they come back up to the seismometer,” he said

CALIFORNIA: NASA’s robotic probe InSight has detected and measured what scientists believe to be a “marsquake,” marking the first time a likely seismological tremor has been recorded on another planet, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California reported on Tuesday.
The breakthrough came nearly five months after InSight, the first spacecraft designed specifically to study the deep interior of a distant world, touched down on the surface of Mars to begin its two-year seismological mission on the red planet.
The faint rumble characterized by JPL scientists as a likely marsquake, roughly equal to a 2.5 magnitude earthquake, was recorded on April 6 — the lander’s 128th Martian day, or sol.
It was detected by InSight’s French-built seismometer, an instrument sensitive enough to measure a seismic wave just one-half the radius of a hydrogen atom.
“We’ve been collecting background noise up until now, but this first event officially kicks off a new field: Martian seismology,” InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt said in a news release.
Scientists are still examining the data to conclusively determine the precise cause of the signal, but the trembling appeared to have originated from inside the planet, as opposed to being caused by forces above the surface, such as wind.
“The high frequency level and broad band is very similar to what we get from a rupture process. So we are very confident that this is a marsquake,” Philippe Lognonné, a geophysics and planetary science professor at University Paris Diderot in France and lead researcher for InSight’s seismometer, said in an email.
Still, a tremor so faint in Southern California would be virtually lost among the dozens of small seismic crackles that occur there every day.
“Our informed guesswork is that this a very small event that’s relatively close, maybe from 50 to 100 kilometers away” from the lander, Banerdt told Reuters by telephone.
A more distant quake would yield greater information about Mars’ interior because seismic waves would “penetrate deeper into the planet before they come back up to the seismometer,” he said.
 
The size and duration of the marsquake also fit the profile of some of the thousands of moonquakes detected on the lunar surface between 1969 and 1977 by seismometers installed there by NASA’s Apollo missions, said Lori Glaze, planetary science division director at NASA headquarters in Washington.
The lunar and Martian surfaces are extremely quiet compared with Earth, which experiences constant low-level seismic noise from oceans and weather as well as quakes that occur along subterranean fault lines created by shifting tectonic plates in the planet’s crust.
Mars and the moon lack tectonic plates. Their seismic activity is instead driven by a cooling and contracting process that causes stress to build up and become strong enough to rupture the crust.
Three other apparent seismic signals were picked up by InSight on March 14, April 10 and April 11 but were even smaller and more ambiguous in origin, leaving scientists less certain they were actual marsquakes.
Lognonné said he expected InSight to eventually detect quakes 50 to 100 times larger than the April 6 tremor.