NASA rings in New Year with historic flyby of faraway world

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, center, celebrate with school children at the exact moment that the New Horizons spacecraft made the closest approach of Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019. (NASA/AFP)
Updated 01 January 2019
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NASA rings in New Year with historic flyby of faraway world

  • The flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto
  • ‘This is the frontier of planetary science’

TAMPA: NASA rang in the New Year on Tuesday with a historic flyby of the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever explored by humankind — a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule — in the hopes of learning more about how planets took shape.
“Go New Horizons!” said lead scientist Alan Stern as a crowd including kids dressed in space costumes blew party horns and cheered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to mark the moment at 12:33 am (0533 GMT) when the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.
Offering scientists the first up-close look at an ancient building block of planets, the flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.
Real-time video of the actual flyby was impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, and another six hours for the response to arrive.
The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (1445 GMT), letting NASA know if New Horizons survived the risky, high-speed encounter.
Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft aimed to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule.
“This is a night none of us are going to forget,” said Queen guitarist Brian May — who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics — and who recorded a solo track to honor the spacecraft and its spirit of exploration.
Stern said Ultima Thule is unique because it is a relic from the early days of the solar system and could provide answers about the origins of other planets.
“The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation,” he said.
“Everything we are going to learn about Ultima — from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things — are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system.”
Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like — whether it is cratered or smooth, 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 in size.
A blurred and pixelated image released Monday, taken from 1.2 million miles away, has intrigued scientists because it appears to show an elongated blob, not a round space rock.
The spaceship was to collect 900 images over the course of a few seconds as it shaved by. Even clearer images should arrive over the next three days.
“Now it is just a matter of time to see the data coming down,” said deputy project scientist John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute.
Scientists decided to study Ultima Thule 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.
Stern said the goal is to take images of Ultima that are three times the resolution the team had for Pluto.
Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.
Project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said humans 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.”
Another NASA spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, also set a new record on Monday by entering orbit around the asteroid Bennu, the smallest cosmic object — about 1,600 feet (500 meters) in diameter — ever circled by a spacecraft.
NASA said the orbit some 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) away marks “a leap for humankind” because no spacecraft has ever “circled so close to such a small space object — one with barely enough gravity to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit.”
The twin planetary feats coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when US astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 in December, 1968.
“As you celebrate New Year’s Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the amazing things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it,” Stern wrote in the New York Times on Monday.


Apollo 11 astronaut returns to launch pad 50 years later

Updated 17 July 2019
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Apollo 11 astronaut returns to launch pad 50 years later

  • Michael Collins marked the precise moment — 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969 — that the Saturn V rocket blasted off
  • President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of 1969 took eight years to achieve

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins returned Tuesday to the exact spot where he flew to the moon 50 years ago with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Collins had the spotlight to himself this time — Armstrong has been gone for seven years and Aldrin canceled. Collins said he wished his two moonwalking colleagues could have shared the moment at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, the departure point for humanity’s first moon landing.
“Wonderful feeling to be back,” the 88-year-old command module pilot said on NASA TV. “There’s a difference this time. I want to turn and ask Neil a question and maybe tell Buzz Aldrin something, and of course, I’m here by myself.”
At NASA’s invitation, Collins marked the precise moment — 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969 — that the Saturn V rocket blasted off. He was seated at the base of the pad alongside Kennedy’s director, Robert Cabana, a former space shuttle commander.
Collins recalled the tension surrounding the crew that day.
“Apollo 11 ... was serious business. We, crew, felt the weight of the world on our shoulders. We knew that everyone would be looking at us, friend or foe, and we wanted to do the best we possibly could,” he said.
Collins remained in lunar orbit, tending to Columbia, the mother ship, while Armstrong and Aldrin landed in the Eagle on July 20, 1969, and spent 2 ½ hours walking the gray, dusty lunar surface.
A reunion Tuesday at the Kennedy firing room by past and present launch controllers — and Collins’ return to the pad, now leased to SpaceX — kicked off a week of celebrations marking each day of Apollo 11’s eight-day voyage.
In Huntsville, Alabama, where the Saturn V was developed, some 4,900 model rockets lifted off simultaneously, commemorating the moment the Apollo 11 crew blasted off for the moon. More than 1,000 youngsters attending Space Camp counted down ... “5, 4, 3, 2, 1!” — and cheered as the red, white and blue rockets created a gray cloud, at least for a few moments, in the sky.
The US Space and Rocket Center was shooting for an altitude of at least 100 feet (30 meters) in order to set a new Guinness Book of World Records. Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden helped with the mass launching. Also present: all three children of German-born rocket genius Wernher von Braun, who masterminded the Saturn V.
“This was a blast. This was an absolute blast,” said spectator Scott Hayek of Ellicott City, Maryland. “And, you know, what a tribute — and, a visceral tribute — to see the rockets going off.”
Another spectator, Karin Wise, of Jonesboro, Georgia, was 19 during Apollo 11 and recalled being glued to TV coverage.
“So, to bring my grandchildren here for the 50 anniversary, was so special,” she said. “I hope they’re around for the 100th anniversary.”
At the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, the spacesuit that Armstrong wore went back on display in mint condition, complete with lunar dust left on the suit’s knees, thighs and elbows. On hand for the unveiling were Vice President Mike Pence, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Armstrong’s older son, Rick. Armstrong died in 2012.
A fundraising campaign took just five days to raise the $500,000 needed for the restoration. It was taken off display 13 years ago because it was deteriorating, said museum curator Cathleen Lewis. It took four years to rehab it.
Calling Armstrong a hero, Pence said “the American people express their gratitude by preserving this symbol of courage.”
Back at Kennedy, NASA televised original launch video of Apollo 11, timed down to the second. Then Cabana turned his conversation with Collins to NASA’s next moonshot program, Artemis, named after the twin sister of Greek mythology’s Apollo. It seeks to put the first woman and next man on the lunar surface — the moon’s south pole — by 2024. President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of 1969 took eight years to achieve.
Collins said he likes the name Artemis and, even more, likes the concept behind Artemis.
“But I don’t want to go back to the moon,” Collins told Cabana. “I want to go direct to Mars. I call it the JFK Mars Express.”
Collins noted that the moon-first crowd has merit to its argument and he pointed out Armstrong himself was among those who believed returning to the moon “would assist us mightily in our attempt to go to Mars.”
Cabana assured Collins, “We believe the faster we get to the moon, the faster we get to Mars as we develop those systems that we need to make that happen.”
About 100 of the original 500 launch controllers and managers on July 16, 1969, reunited in the firing room Tuesday morning. The crowd also included members of NASA’s next moon management team, including Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, launch director for the still-in-development Space Launch System moon rocket. The SLS will surpass the Saturn V, the world’s most powerful rocket to fly to date.
Blackwell-Thompson said she got goosebumps listening to the replay of the Apollo 11 countdown. Hearing Collins’ “personal account of what that was like was absolutely amazing.”
The lone female launch controller for Apollo 11, JoAnn Morgan, enjoyed seeing the much updated- firing room. One thing was notably missing, though: stacks of paper. “We could have walked to the moon on the paper,” Morgan said.
Collins was reunited later Tuesday with two other Apollo astronauts at an evening gala at Kennedy, including Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke, who was the capsule communicator in Mission Control for the Apollo 11 moon landing. Only four of the 12 moonwalkers from 1969 through 1972 are still alive: Aldrin, Duke, Apollo 15’s David Scott and Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt.
Among the gala attendees: Eight former shuttle astronauts, including Mark Kelly and his wife, former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and “space lover” and aspiring space tourist Vesa Heilala, 52, who traveled from Helsinki to Florida for the anniversary.
“I had to come here because in Finland we don’t have rockets and we don’t have astronauts for 50 years,” said Heilala, who was collecting astronaut autographs on his colorful propeller cap.
Huntsville’s rocket center also had a special anniversary dinner Tuesday night, with some retired Apollo and Skylab astronauts and rocket scientists. Aldrin was set to attend but was traveling Tuesday and likely wouldn’t make it on time, a center official said.
Aldrin, 89, hosted a gala in Southern California last Saturday.
NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said Aldrin bowed out of the Florida launch pad visit, citing his intense schedule of appearances. Aldrin and Collins may reunite in Washington on Friday or Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing.