Tag Archives: flyby

Pluto Flyby.

New Horizons wakes up for its most remote target yet — Ultima Thule

NASA’s New Horizons awakens from its slumber in time for the farthest planetary encounter in history — a flyby of Ultima Thule.

Pluto Flyby.

3D rendered artist’s impression of New Horizons flying by Pluto.
Image credits Kevin Gill.

The historic encounter is scheduled to take place on New Year’s Day in 2019. Since it wouldn’t do to sleep during such an important meeting, NASA woke the craft from its 165-day-long hibernation on June 4. This was the second period of inactivity for the craft, both of which were meant to conserve energy.  The craft will remain active through to late 2020 to beam back all the data from its contact with Ultima and the wider Kuiper Belt.

Not in Kansas anymore

The Kuiper Belt isn’t exactly a stone’s throw away — except maybe if that stone is a meteorite. It’s similar to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, only much more massive, and much farther away. The Kuiper Belt lies between 4.5 to 7.5 billion kilometers (2.8 to 4.6 billion miles) away from the Sun, roughly 20 to 50 times astronomical units (AUs), the distance between the Earth and our star.

New Horizons has already traveled an impressive stretch of this distance. It went past Pluto and is currently cruising through the belt properly, some 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from Earth.

On June 4th, NASA ended the craft’s energy-saving hibernation mode, which was initiated last December. Ground control — situated at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland — received confirmation that onboard systems have resumed normal activity on June 5 2:12 a.m. local time, via NASA’s Deep Space Network. So far, everything seems in order and all systems are coming online without a hitch, the ream reports.

They will spend the next three days collecting navigation data from New Horizons and transmitting commands to prepare it for its Ultima flyby. It takes a lot of time to send a message that far into space, nearly 6 hours each way. The data traffic will include memory updates, subsystem and science-instrument diagnostics, as well as retrieval of information stored in New Horizon’s memory banks.

The whole process is estimated to take about two months, the team adds. On August 13th, the team will take the probe out of its stabilizing spin state. In mid- to late-August, they plan to instruct it to make distant observations of Ultima in order to refine its course towards the object. Its small size (about 20 to 23 miles in diameter) and the lack of light will make Ultima Thule hard to spot, but the team is anxious to try — this would be the first time any human has seen the object.

“Our team is already deep into planning and simulations of our upcoming flyby of Ultima Thule and excited that New Horizons is now back in an active state to ready the bird for flyby operations, which will begin in late August,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern.

New Horizons is roughly 262 million kilometers (162 million miles) from Ultima — a bit under two AUs — and is speeding towards its mysterious target at a speed of 1,223,420 kilometers (760,200 miles) per day. Which is a lot.

Huge asteroid to pass near Earth in November

Researchers and astronomy amateurs alike should leave a few days open in their November calendar and prepare for something awesome; one of the major and potentially perilous (in time) asteroids will be making a flyby this year. The asteroid, 2005 YU55 is a round small world with a diameter of 400 meters.

The asteroid will pass closer to us than the Moon, at a distance of 0.85 lunar distances. Due to its large size and small distance, an intense campaign of radar, infrared and visual observations will be launched.

“The close Earth approach of 2005 YU55 on Nov. 8, is unusual since it is close and big. On average, one wouldn’t expect an object this big to pass this close but every 30 years,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Asteroid 2005 YU55 rotates at a very low velocity, and due to that, as well as its mass and proximity to Earth, it has been deemed as potentially dangerous, but not this year – at the next flyby.

“We’re already preparing for the 2005 YU55 flyby,” said Lance Benner, a research scientist at JPL and a specialist on radar imaging of near-Earth objects. He said part of the plan is to observe the asteroid with radar using both the huge Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico and equipment at Goldstone.

All in all, should be a great experience for the average astronomy lover, and an extremely useful opportunity for researchers to study future flybys, especially potentially dangerous ones.

Mercury in the highlight for NASA

The planet closest to the sun is very hot, yet very cold at the same time. It may even be a bit icy. The Mercury Messenger spacecraft entered the planet’s orbit on March 17, and since then, NASA has showed some of the pictures taken by it, which are absolutely amazing.

The visit to Mercury is the last frontier of planetary exploration that NASA (or anybody else) will reach for quite a while; they have already send orbiters to five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), and there are no plans to send some to Neptun or Uranus. They do have a spacecraft, New Horizons that will zoom past Pluto in 3 years, but then again, Pluto isn’t considered to be a planet anymore.

Mercury has seem some spotlight along the years, in half a dozen flybys by NASA probes, but now that the Messenger is pulled into an elliptical orbit around Mercury, planetary scientists will be able to get their first look at the smallest and hottest planet of our solar system. During the day, temperatures on Mercury can reach a staggering 800 degrees Fahrenheit, while during the night, they drop to -150.

Even more intriguing are the shadows in craters near Mercury’s poles; there, the sun never shines, and in the cold, frigid environment, many scientists expect that the Messenger will find frozen water. What lies in that frozen water… that’s another discussion.

Picture source

Comet flyby produces “stunning pictures”

After six years of loneliness, this Valentine’s day was the charm for one of the veteran comet-chasing spacecrafts. As Stardust briefly met with the comet nicknamed Tempel 1, the spacecraft took dozens of pictures of the comet’s icy surface; but this was no random encounter – the purpose of it was to see how a comet’s surface changes when it gets near the sun, and the flyby wasn’t 100 percent succesful. “It was 1,000 percent successful!” exclaimed Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator.

Six years ago, NASA’s Deep Impact mission visited the same comet, so now Stardust knew exactly what to look for at Tempel 1, but it took a really long time for the images to come in for processing.

“A number of things contributed to us receiving the images later than we expected, including the order in which we received the images, weather conditions, the spacecraft’s range and the processing of the images,” Randii Wessen, a spokesperson and engineer for JPL

However, even though they haven’t reached any conclusions yet, there were a whole lot of things that stood out. For example, they noticed that most of the craters were eroded and smooth much more faster than expected; it’s still unclear what caused this erosion, but it’s believed that an icy body that was at the mercy of the Sun’s warm rays had a part to play in all this. Hopefully, the exciting new images will be up for graps in a matter of days, but this new set of information is bound to keep researchers working for a lot of time.