Following the fabulous success of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, the spacecraft continued out in the solar system making the first close flyby of a small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), specifically 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule.
On January 1, 2019, New Horizons came within ~3,500 km of MU69. This small KBO was discovered by members of the New Horizons team using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. MU69’s orbit identifies it as a cold classical KBO. This means it has probably been present at its current heliocentric distance (43 AU) and cold conditions for the past ~4.5 billion years. These cold conditions, combined with its small size, prevents it from maintaining a strong internal geologic engine to the present, making MU69 the most primitive body ever studied by any planetary spacecraft. Other than its orbital parameters and brightness, the only information known about Ultima Thule prior to observations by New Horizons were its red color, an approximate size (25-30 km diameter), elongated shape (derived by stellar occultations), and very dark surface (visible albedo estimate ~0.1).
In this talk, Dr. Bagenal will review the observations from New Horizon’s flyby of this small, distant object and their implications for understanding our solar system.
In one of the spacecraft operations centers inside LASP’s Space Technology Building, a woman’s calm voice pipes in over a speaker:
“Loss of signal, MMS-4,” the voice reports.
The room looks like a smaller version of the NASA flight control centers that show up in every space movie. The announcement is a routine cue that one of the four spacecraft that make up the Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission has finished its latest round of transmitting data back to Earth.
Often the first person to hear such alerts isn’t a grizzled mission control veteran, but rather a CU Boulder student. That’s because LASP employs student “command controllers” to help operate the space missions under its supervision.
LASP scientists spent the first hours of 2019 in a Maryland operations center watching NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shoot past a minor planet more than 4 billion miles from Earth—the farthest object that any spacecraft has ever explored.
That icy object, an elongated body about 19 miles tall, is called 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule, a Latin phrase that means “beyond the known world.”
CU Boulder researchers and students are playing an important role in this brush with the unknown, which took place on Jan. 1. As New Horizons zips through the outermost regions of our solar system, it will collect and analyze specks of dust using an instrument designed by students at LASP.
NASA will soon have new eyes on the Sun. Two miniature satellites designed and built at LASP are scheduled to launch later this month on Spaceflight’s SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The new missions—called the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer-2 (MinXSS-2) and the Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor (CSIM)—will collect data on the physics of the Sun and its impact on life on Earth.
These “CubeSats,” which are smaller than a microwave oven, are set to blast into a near-Earth orbit alongside more than 60 other spacecraft. According to Spaceflight, SSO-A is the largest dedicated rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to date.