NASA spacecraft hurtles toward historic New Year’s flyby

This image provided by the Carnegie Institution for Science shows an artist's concept of a dwarf planet that astronomers say is the farthest known object in our solar system, which they have nicknamed "Farout." (AP)
Updated 24 December 2018

NASA spacecraft hurtles toward historic New Year’s flyby

  • The New Horizons spacecraft is speeding through space at 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, traveling almost a million miles per day

TAMPA: A NASA spacecraft is hurtling toward a historic New Year’s Day flyby of the most distant planetary object ever studied, a frozen relic of the early solar system called Ultima Thule.
Four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away, the unmanned spaceship, New Horizons, is poised to zoom by at 12:33 am (0533 GMT) on January 1, at a distance of just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) from Ultima Thule.
That’s more than three times closer than New Horizons came to Pluto when it zipped by the dwarf planet in 2015.
So what is this strange object, which is named after a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and has its own rock anthem performed by Queen guitarist Brian May?
“This is truly the most primitive object ever encountered by a spacecraft,” said Hal Weaver, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Relatively small, scientists aren’t sure about its exact size.
But they believe it is about 100 times tinier than Pluto which measures almost 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) in diameter.
Ultima Thule is also in a freezing area of space, suggesting it may remain well preserved.
“Really, it is a relic from the formation of the solar system,” said Weaver.

Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) lies in the Kuiper Belt, a vast cosmic disc left over from the days when planets first formed.
Astronomers sometimes call it the “attic” of the solar system.
Scientists didn’t even know the Kuiper Belt existed until the 1990s.
The Kuiper Belt begins some three billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers) beyond the Sun, past the orbit of Neptune which is the furthest planet from the Sun.
“It is teeming with literally billions of comets, millions of objects like Ultima which are called planetesimals, the building blocks out of which planets were formed, and a smattering — a handful of dwarf planets the size of continents, like Pluto,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator on New Horizons.
“It is important to us in planetary science because this region of the solar system, being so far from the Sun, preserves the original conditions from four and a half billion years ago,” Stern added.
“So when we fly by Ultima, we are going to be able to see the way things were back at the beginning.”

The New Horizons spacecraft is speeding through space at 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, traveling almost a million miles per day.
At that pace, if it strikes a piece of debris as small as a rice pellet, the spacecraft could be destroyed instantly.
“We don’t want that to happen,” said Stern.
If New Horizon survives this flyby, it will do so while furiously snapping hundreds of pictures of Ultima Thule, in the hopes of revealing its shape and geology for the first time.
New Horizons sent back stunning images of Pluto — including a never before seen heart shape on its surface — in 2015.
This time, “at closest approach we are going to try to image Ultima at three times the resolution we had for Pluto,” Stern said.
But the flyby “requires extremely precise navigation. Much more precise than we have ever tried before. We might get it, and we might not,” Stern added.

Ultima Thule was first discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.
Scientists figured out in 2017 that Ultima Thule is not spherical but possibly elongated in shape. It may even be two objects.
It does not project the repeated, pulsing light scientists expect to see from a rotating cosmic object, raising puzzling questions.
Could it be surrounded by cosmic dust? Enveloped by many tiny moons? Oriented in such a way that its pole is facing the approaching spacecraft?
NASA hopes the flyby will reveal the answers.
The first images are expected by the evening of January 1, with release planned for January 2.
More, higher resolution shots should follow.
Though no live images are possible at this distance, NASA plans to broadcast online during the flyby, featuring an animated video and music by Queen guitarist Brian May, who holds a degree in astrophysics and is releasing a musical tribute to accompany the event.
“I was inspired by the idea that this is the furthest that the Hand of Man has ever reached,” May said.
And Stern hopes this won’t be the end for New Horizons, which launched in 2006 and is powered by plutonium.
“We hope to hunt down one more KPO (Kuiper Belt Object), making an even more distant flyby in the 2020s,” Stern said.


All eyes on historic UAE space mission

After completing his role as a second flight engineer, Al-Mansoori will return to Earth on board a second Soyuz-MS spacecraft. Al-Mansoori said he applied for the astronaut’s program because it was his dream as a child and “our leaders encourage us to achieve our dreams.” (AFP)
Updated 15 September 2019

All eyes on historic UAE space mission

  • Emirati astronaut Hazza Al-Mansoori to blast off into space on Sept. 25 from Kazakhstan
  • Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman blazed a trail 34 years ago for others to follow

ABU DHABI: Come Sept. 25, Hazza Al-Mansoori of the UAE will become the third Arab to travel into space. On that day, at exactly 6.56pm, Al-Mansoori will blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) on board a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft. With Al-Mansoori making the historic journey with two other astronauts, an American and a Russian, the hope is that he will be inaugurating a new era of Arab participation in space exploration.
The honor of being the first Arab in space goes to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, who was one of the astronauts on board the space shuttle Discovery as part of a NASA mission 34 years ago.
Two years later, Muhammed Faris, a Syrian military aviator, became the second Arab to journey into space.
Al-Mansoori is currently in quarantine alongside the other two crew members — Russian commander Oleg Skripochka and Nasa astronaut Jessica Meir — at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
In a statement, Yousuf Hamad Al-Shaibani, director general of the UAE’s Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC), acknowledged the support of NASA, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos.
“The UAE’s first mission to the ISS is the result of extensive efforts by dedicated individuals and organizations in the UAE,” he said, “and also the result of important strategic partnerships with major global space agencies … who spared no effort in preparing our astronauts and providing them with all the support and training they need.”
A father of four with a bachelor’s degree in aviation sciences from Khalifa bin Zayed Aviation College, Al-Mansoori previously said he applied for the astronaut program because it was his dream as a child “and our leaders encourage us to achieve our dreams.”
Al-Mansoori and his comrade Sultan Al-Neyadi — the UAE’s chosen backup astronaut — were selected from 4,022 applicants to the UAE Astronaut Program after a series of advanced medical and psychological tests as well as personal interviews conducted to the highest international standards, according to UAE state news agency Wam.
On being handpicked, Al-Mansoori said: “When I was told I was selected for the program, it was difficult to express how proud and honored I felt. I was euphoric.”
Before applying for the program, Al-Mansoori — who has amassed more than 14 years of experience in military aviation — was a pilot and flew the UAE air force’s F-16 Block 60, one of the world’s most advanced jet fighters.

IN NUMBERS

38th - UAE’s place in list of nations to have sent a citizen to space.

3rd - Arab astronaut honor will go to Hazza Al-Mansoori.

34 - Gap in years between first and third Arab in space.

562nd - Person to be sent into space will be Al-Mansoori.

18 - Total number of countries whose citizens have been to ISS.

He was also one of the first Arab and Emirati pilots to take part in the Dubai Air Show’s celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the UAE armed forces.
“A lot of things are happening in my mind from now till the launch,” Al-Mansoori was recently quoted as saying. “I’ve prepared for this mission but not only from here,” he said. “It started from my childhood, from how my parents raised me, the confidence I gained from my life; thanks to our leadership for giving me this opportunity today to represent my country.
“I will try to remember each second of the launch because it will be really important for me to share with my country, with the world and the Arab region that experience.”
A similar sense of wonder and excitement gripped the Middle East when Prince Sultan became, at the age of 28, the first Arab astronaut. Currently the chairman of the Saudi Space Agency, Prince Sultan, son of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, was the first Arab, Muslim and royal to travel into space on June 17, 1985.

Also read: Our interactive story about Saudi Prince Sultan, the first Arab in space in 1985

Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a seven-day mission during which Prince Sultan helped to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat).
During a special one-on-one interview with Arab News in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Prince Sultan, recalling his remarkable journey, said: “Brave people are people who feel fear but still go forward.”
On July 22, 1987, Faris, the Syrian military aviator, joined the elite club of Arabs in space when he blasted off on board a Soyuz craft of the USSR. Faris, who now lives in Turkey as a refugee, carried with him a vial of soil from Damascus and conducted scientific experiments alongside Russian cosmonauts.
To date, 563 people in history have gone to space, starting with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who orbited the Earth on April 12, 1961. American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. While Al-Mansoori will be the first Emirati to travel to space, he will not be the last. Backup astronaut Al-Neyadi has been promised the next spot on a UAE mission to space.
The UAE also has plans to launch an exploration probe to Mars to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s foundation in 2020. The Emirates Mars Mission will launch its Al-Amal, or Hope, spacecraft from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan.
Al-Amal is designed to orbit Mars, which has an area of contrasting brightness and darkness that was named Arabia Terra in 1979 for its resemblance to the Arabian Peninsula.
Elsewhere in the region, Morocco last year launched its second Earth observation satellite, Mohammed VI-B, while space programs have been established in Algeria and Egypt. In Saudi Arabia, institutions such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) are playing their part in educating Arab space scientists of the future. The Saudi Space Agency was set up by royal decree on Dec. 27, 2018. In comments to Arab News in July, Salem Humaid Al-Marri, the MBRSC assistant director general for science and technology, said: “The UAE is working with the Saudi space program, as well
as with others such as Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain, to boost Arab presence in the space industry. Space is bringing Arab nations together.”
For now, final preparations are underway for the UAE’s Sept. 25 voyage, after the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in Star City, Russia officially gave the green light for the mission on Sept. 5.
Once Al-Mansoori reaches the ISS, he will present a tour of the station in Arabic and will conduct Earth observation and imaging experiences, interact with ground stations, share information, as well as documenting the daily lives of astronauts at the station.
Al-Mansoori will study the effect of microgravity compared with gravity on Earth. The effects of space travel on the human body will also be studied before and after he completes his mission. It is the first time such research will be carried out on an astronaut from the Arab region.
He will not be missing traditional Emirati food as three dishes have been prepared for his journey — the madrooba, a salt-cured fish seasoned with spices; saloona, a traditional Emirati stew; and balaleet, a sweet Emirati breakfast dish of egg and vermicelli.
After completing his role as a second flight engineer, Al-Mansoori will return to Earth aboard a Soyuz-MS 12 spacecraft.
With just days remaining before he makes history, Al-Mansoori is taking the words of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al-Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai, with him: “A historic space flight, the ambition of the UAE and a new challenge. Keep your morale high and embrace the challenge. May Allah bless this landmark mission.”

When a Saudi went to space
Prince Sultan bin Salman speaks exclusively to Arab News about his 1985 NASA mission and how he became the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space
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