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

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.


Alexei Leonov, 1st human to walk in space, dies in Moscow

In this Tuesday, July 20, 2010 file photo, former Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov speaks to the media before a reception at the U.S. Ambassador's Spaso House residence in Moscow, Russia. (AP)
Updated 12 October 2019

Alexei Leonov, 1st human to walk in space, dies in Moscow

  • NASA on Friday offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death

MOSCOW: Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago — and who nearly didn’t make it back into his space capsule — has died in Moscow at 85.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos made the announcement on its website Friday but gave no cause for his death. Leonov had health issues for several years, according to Russia media.
Showing just how much of a space pioneer Leonov was, NASA broke into its live televised coverage of a spacewalk by two Americans outside the International Space Station to report Leonov’s death.
“A tribute to Leonov as today is a spacewalk,” Mission Control in Houston said.
Leonov — described by the Russian Space Agency as Cosmonaut No. 11 — was an icon both in his country as well as in the US He was such a legend that the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet spaceship after him in his “2010” sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday sent his condolences to Leonov’s family, calling him a “true pioneer, a strong and heroic person.”
“Infinitely committed to his vocation, he left a truly legendary mark in the history of space exploration and in the history of our country,” Putin said on the Kremlin’s website.
Leonov was born in 1934 into a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like countless Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and shipped off to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but he managed to survive and reunite with his family.
The future cosmonaut had a strong artistic bent and even thought about going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and, later, an aviation college. Leonov did not give up sketching even when he flew into space, and took colored pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975 to draw.
That mission was the first one between the Soviet Union and the United States and was carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to the international cooperation seen aboard the current International Space Station.
But Leonov staked his place in space history ten years earlier, on March 18, 1965, when he exited his Voskhod 2 space capsule secured by a tether.
“I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in,” the cosmonaut recalled years later. “I was mesmerized by the stars. They were everywhere — up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”
Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov’s pioneering venture was particularly nerve-wracking, according to details of the exploit that only became public decades later.
His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he could not get back into the spacecraft. He had to open a valve to vent oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch.
Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first US spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months.
Leonov might have become the Soviet Union’s first moonwalker, in fact, had his country’s lunar-landing effort not been canceled in the wake of Apollo 11’s triumphant moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.
On his second trip into space ten years later, Leonov commanded the Soviet half of Apollo-Soyuz 19.
The cosmonaut was well known for his humor. Once the US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules docked in orbit around Earth on July, 17, 1975, Leonov and his Russian crewmate, Valeri Kubasov, welcomed the three US astronauts — their Cold War rivals — with canned borscht disguised as Stolichnaya vodka and suggested a toast.
“When we sat at the table, they said: ‘Why, that’s not possible,’” Leonov recalled in 2005. “We insisted, saying that according to our tradition, we must drink before work. That worked, they opened it and drank (the borscht) and were caught by surprise.”
The cosmonaut turned 85 in May. Several days before that, two Russian crewmembers on the International Space Station ventured into open space on a planned spacewalk, carrying Leonov’s picture with them to pay tribute to the space legend. They said “Happy Birthday!” to Leonov before opening the hatch and venturing out.
Leonov’s modern-day successor, Oleg Kononenko, who was one of the two Russians on that spacewalk, told Rossiya-24 television on Friday that Leonov had tuned in to hear their congratulations from space.
“We were going to stop by Alexei Arkhipovich (Leonov) after our return and give him our space souvenirs, but you see it wasn’t meant to be,” Kononenko said.
When his crew returned to earth at the end of June, Leonov was already unwell.
Kononenko spoke fondly of the Soviet space pioneer, saying he was a frequent guest at send-off ceremonies for space crews in Star City and at the cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
“We had this tradition that he would give cosmonauts pep talks before they board the spacecraft,” Kononenko said. “We all looked forward to that, always thought about it and always wanted Leonov to be the one to send us off into space.”
Messages of condolences poured from around the globe.
NASA on Friday offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death.
“His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today’s Space Station maintenance possible,” NASA said on Twitter.
“One of the finest people I have ever known,” former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted on Friday. “Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, artist, leader, spacewalker and friend, I salute you.”
Russian space fans were bringing flowers to his monument Friday on the memorial alley in honor of Russia’s cosmonauts in Moscow.
Leonov, who will be buried on Tuesday at a military memorial cemetery outside Moscow, is survived by his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren.