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NASA’s New Horizons explores Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt

Brandon Moseley



Tuesday, January 1 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt out beyond Pluto. Ultima Thule is the farthest from Earth that a spacecraft has ever transmitted pictures. NASA scientists believe that Ultima Thule is one of the oldest objects in the solar system, predating the planets.

“Congratulations to NASA’s New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “In addition to being the first to explore Pluto, today New Horizons flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft and became the first to directly explore an object that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system. This is what leadership in space exploration is all about.”

The spacecraft is healthy and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule. The first data from New Horizons transmissions from Ultima Thule reached the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) almost exactly 10 hours after New Horizons’ closest approach to the object. The official name for the object is actually 2014 MU69. Ultima Thule is a nickname given to it by the NASA mission team.

Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). Ultima Thule, somewhere in its distant past, was actually two separate Kuiper Belt objects that collided at low speed and merged.

“New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history — 4 billion miles from the Sun,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “The data we have look fantastic and we’re already learning about Ultima from up close. From here out the data will just get better and better!”

The spacecraft approached within just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima. The Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles. Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other.


Mission team members are reviewing the data as it comes in from the spacecraft. This is the first exploration of this distant region of the solar system.

“New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer,” said Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Director Ralph Semmel. “This flyby marks a first for all of us — APL, NASA, the nation and the world — and it is a great credit to the bold team of scientists and engineers who brought us to this point.”

“Reaching Ultima Thule from 4 billion miles away is an incredible achievement. This is exploration at its finest,” said Adam L. Hamilton, president and CEO of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. We’re looking forward to seeing the next chapter.”

Only one percent of the data has reached Earth. The rest is stored on the New Horizons spacecraft and the mission team will continue downloading images and other data in the days and months ahead. Completing the return of all the science data will take 20 months.

New Horizons was launched in January 2006, when George W. Bush (R) was in the White House. In 2015, the spacecraft began its exploration of the Kuiper Belt with a flyby of Pluto and its moons. The spacecraft will continue exploring the Kuiper Belt until at least 2021.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

“This flyby is a historic achievement,” Stern said. “Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space. New Horizons has set a new bar for state-of-the-art spacecraft navigation.”
The new images revealed that Ultima Thule is a “contact binary,” consisting of two connected spheres. End to end, the world measures 19 miles (31 kilometers) in length. The team has dubbed the larger sphere “Ultima” (12 miles/19 kilometers across) and the smaller sphere “Thule” (9 miles/14 kilometers across).

The team says that the two spheres likely joined as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender.

“New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system. We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time,” said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead. “Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form — both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy.”

When New Horizons was launched, scientist did not know even know that Ultima Thule existed. It was discovered in June 2014, by the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA scientists realized that New Horizons would come near there when it got finished exploring Pluto and its moons so decided to send the spacecraft there.

Ultima Thule is just a nickname given to the object by NASA scientists. Its official astronomy designation is 2014 MU69.

The larger lobe is about three times the volume of the smaller one. 2014 MU69 has a reddish hue, thought to be the result of radiation in the outer solar system. From the early images, the team believes the object may be covered in features such as hills, ridges and plateaus. 2014 MU69 rotates once about every 15 hours, and it appears to contain exotic ices such as nitrogen or methane, something that scientists will try to confirm as more data about the composition of 2014 MU69 reaches Earth.

Stern said that the mission was “a technical success beyond anything ever attempted before in spaceflight. t’s only really the size of something like Washington, D.C., and it’s about as reflective as garden-variety dirt, and it’s illuminated by a sun that’s 1,900 times fainter than it is outside on a sunny day here on the Earth. So, we were basically chasing it down in the dark at 32,000 miles per hour.”

Ultima Thule is a Latin phrase used by the Romans to describe unexplored regions to the north and, more generally, a region that lies beyond the known world. The phrase was used by Virgil in the poem Georgics. The term “Thule” has a long literary history, appearing in works by James Thompson, Charlotte Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, and Vladimir Nabokov. NASA’s use of the phrase has been criticized by some because “Ultima Thule” was also a mythical region in early Nazi lore, used by the German occultist Thule Society to describe a lost land that was the birthplace of the “Aryan race.”

“Ultima Thule” is an unofficial nickname for 2014 MU69, and now that the object has been explored and characterized, the International Astronomical Union can begin the process of giving the object an official name.

“The term Ultima Thule, which is very old, many centuries old, possibly over 1,000 years old, is a wonderful meme for exploration, and that’s why we chose it,” Stern said. “And I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it.”

2014 MU69 is what is known as a classical Kuiper Belt object, which are icy and rocky bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune that have relatively circular orbits, meaning that unlike Pluto, they never cross Neptune’s orbit. Classical Kuiper Belt objects are 3.5 to 4.5 billion miles from the sun and constitute an incredibly primitive population, virtually unchanged since the dawn of the solar system.

“Because of [2014 MU69’s] current orbit, we think it’s been in that position for 4.6 billion years, in which case it’s been kept in a deep freeze since the time of its formation,” Weaver said.

Scientists speculate that the planets were created by primitive objects like Ultima Thule colliding and becoming bigger objects.

“It’s actually gratifying to see these almost perfectly formed contact binaries in their native habitat,” says Jeff Moore, geology and geophysics team lead for New Horizons. “People have speculated for a long time the processes… [of] how the initial primordial clumps come together to form what’s called planetesimals, which are the things which in turn go on to the make the planets. But to actually see the things that are consistent with the explanations that we have and theories we’ve had for how these things form is extremely gratifying.”

Before the 1990s astronomers though Pluto was the only object out beyond Neptune’s orbit. In actuality the region beyond Neptune is not empty, but rather is full of hundreds of thousands of objects in a distinct zone of the solar system now called the Kuiper Belt, named after Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who predicted the region’s existence decades earlier.

In 2003 scientists discovered Eris, a dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt about the same size as Pluto. Further research has revealed the significance of this third region and its influence on the formation and evolution of all that orbits the sun.

New Horizons has enough power in its radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) to operate for 15 to 20 more years. The craft can continue science operations to about 2.5 times its current distance from the sun, and it has enough fuel left to fire its thrusters to change course toward another object. New Horizons will keep an eye out for additional planetary bodies to study, either by observing them through its telescopic cameras or by flying by another object.

Aerospace and Defense

NASA 2018 highlights

Brandon Moseley



NASA had an eventful 2018, which the agency highlighted in a press release.

The agency welcomed a new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, deputy administrator, Jim Morhard, and chief financial officer, Jeff DeWit, in 2018.

“Our agency’s accomplishments in 2018 are breathtaking,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “We’ve inspired the world and created incredible new capabilities for our nation. This year, we landed on Mars for the seventh time, and America remains the only country to have landed on Mars successfully. We created new U.S. commercial partnerships to land back on the Moon. We made breakthroughs in our quest to send humans farther into space than ever before. And, we contributed to remarkable advancements in aviation. I want to thank the entire NASA team for a fantastic year of American leadership in space, and I am confident we will build on our 2018 successes in 2019.”

In 2018, NASA celebrated the agency’s 60th anniversary on October 1.

“President Eisenhower launched our nation into the Space Age and President Kennedy gave us the charge to reach the Moon,” Bridenstine said. “Over six incredible decades, we have brought the world an amazing number of bold missions in science, aviation and human exploration. NASA and its workforce have never failed to raise the bar of human potential and blaze a trail to the future. We celebrate our legacy today with great promise and a strong direction from the President to return to the Moon and go on to Mars.”

The Office of the Chief Financial Officer received a successful clean audit in 2018 and


DeWit led his Strategic Investments Division in working with the Government Accounting Office to pass an official Corrective Action Plan to increase accountability and transparency into the costs of large programs and proactively improve NASA’s program and project management activities.

NASA’s new Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1) provides a directive for NASA to return humans to the surface of the moon for long-term exploration and utilization and pursue human exploration of Mars and the broader solar system. SPD-2 was passed by the White House in February to help ease the regulatory environment so entrepreneurs can thrive in space. SPD-3 was passed in June to helping ensure that the U.S. is a leader in providing a safe and secure environment as commercial and civil space traffic increases.

As part of America’s return to the Moon, in October, NASA issued a call for lunar surface instruments and technology payloads that will fly to the Moon on commercial lunar landers as early as next year. On Nov. 29, the agency announced nine U.S. companies are eligible to bid on NASA delivery services to the lunar surface through Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts.

NASA hosted a conference in February for scientists across a variety of disciplines to discuss future exploration and research using the Gateway, a spacecraft that will orbit the Moon and support human and robotic missions.

NASA issued several requests for information and ideas from U.S. companies about the Gateway’s use and supply, as well as lunar payload transportation capabilities, and construction of its power and propulsion element.

NASA continued to refine requirements for a U.S. habitat module for the Gateway and technology to use and process space-based resources through the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2).

The transportation system that will carry astronauts from Earth to the Gateway and help build the structure in orbit is coming together around the country for the first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft.

NASA delivered the second piece of SLS flight hardware to its Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this year. The Orion stage adapter will connect the spacecraft to SLS and will be loaded with 13 small satellites on the first mission.

Engineers are completing final outfitting and assembly of the five major structural pieces of the SLS core stage at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville are putting the finishing touches on the 30-foot-tall launch vehicle stage adapter, which will connect SLS’ core stage to the interim cryogenic propulsion stage delivered to Kennedy last year, while engineers at Kennedy installed Orion’s reentry heat shield. The ESA (European Space Agency) delivered to Kennedy the service module that will propel, power and cool Orion during the first integrated flight test with SLS – Exploration Mission 1.

Workers at Kennedy completed construction on the main flame deflector at Launch Pad 39B, and engineers installed the final umbilical on the mobile launcher before rolling the massive tower on Crawler-Transporter 2 to the pad.

Also in 2018, NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars identified fragments of complex organic molecules in the shallow surface of Mars, giving us further evidence that the planet might have hosted life at one point in the distant past.

NASA launched and landed the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) on Mars. InSight landed on Mars in November to study the planet’s interior.

NASA announced that the next Mars rover in 2020 will continue the agency’s efforts to search for evidence of life and prepare for human arrival.

The agency completed more than 4,300 hours of testing on Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Hall thrusters; shipped the Orion pressure vessel for first crewed flight to Kennedy; performed the final test of Orion’s parachute system; began preparation for test of Orion’s launch abort system; several parts of SLS entered production or were completed for second Orion mission; and new series of SLS RS-25 engine test firings included nine tests of 3D-printed parts. \\

NASA also launched the first combination 3D printer and recycler to the International Space Station to demonstrate new in-space manufacturing technology; solicited new ways to manage trash on deep space missions; ten companies were chosen to conduct studies and advance technologies to collect and use space-based resources; and the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge progressed as participating teams created digital models of Martian habitats and constructed and tested foundation prototypes.

In 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was launched. This was the first-ever mission to “touch the Sun.” The mission broke records for fastest human-made object and closest approach to the Sun, and sent home its first light images – including a picture of Earth – in late October. Its first flight through the Sun’s outer atmosphere was on Nov. 7.

After a two-year journey, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission arrived at the asteroid Bennu, on December 3. OSIRIS-Rex has discovered water locked inside the clays that make up Bennu.

In December, NASA announced its Voyager 2 probe has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories, astronomers found in June that Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object to travel through our solar system, had an unexpected speed boost and a change in trajectory. Scientists believe the object is a new type of comet.

After nine years of searching for planets outside our solar system, NASA’s Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel, but not before scientists were able to use it, and Hubble, to find hints of what could be a moon orbiting another planet outside our solar system. This would be the first exomoon ever detected.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) was launched in April to continue the search for planets outside our solar system. The spacecraft, which began science operations in July, will survey the entire sky over the course of two years, searching for nearby exoplanets.

NASA’s Dawn mission, which launched in 2007, also ran out of fuel this year, but not before becoming the first spacecraft to orbit two separate bodies in the solar system – the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn helped scientists discover organics on Ceres and evidence that dwarf planets could have hosted oceans over a significant part of their history and might still.

The Independent Review Board established by NASA to assess progress on its James Webb Space Telescope unanimously recommended this year that development on the world’s premier science observatory should continue. NASA established a new 2021 launch date for Webb, and completed several critical tests and milestones in 2018, including vibration and acoustic tests and a simulation of the telescope’s complex communications. The two halves of Webb – the spacecraft and the telescope – were connected temporarily for a communications test during which they successfully “spoke” to each other.

New analysis of data from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft indicate that the magnetic field around the moon Ganymede makes it unlike any other in the solar system.

In 2018, NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Scott Tingle, Serena Aunon-Chancellor and Anne McClain participated in their first spaceflight missions to the International Space Station. Veteran astronauts Joe Acaba, Ricky Arnold, and Drew Feuste also completed missions aboard the space station this year.

The crew members of Expeditions 54-58 supported more than 100 new U.S. science investigations. Information learned from the unique orbiting laboratory is being used to prepare for future missions to the Moon and Mars as well as to improve life on Earth through research sponsored by the U.S. National Laboratory. In February, astronauts set a new record-setting week of research that surpassed 100 hours.

Research conducted on station in 2018 included experiments to understand plants on Earth as well as plants growing in space, and new facilities that may help us to understand the materials needed for exploring the universe, the physiology of life in space and the basic elements of the universe itself.

The space station now hosts the first combination 3D printer and recycler to demonstrate a new in-space manufacturing capability, Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) to help identify microbes aboard the space station, and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).

Nine U.S. astronauts were assigned to Commercial Crew Program missions aboard the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon. Both companies have begun final testing of their spacecraft and associated systems, and the first test flights are expected in 2019.

The first U.S. astronauts who will fly on American-made, commercial spacecraft to and from the International Space Station will be Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, Nicole Aunapu Mann, Chris Ferguson, Eric Boe, Josh Cassada and Suni Williams.

Expedition 56 astronauts installed new cameras on the station in June to provide enhanced views of the two new American spacecraft as they approach and dock to the station.

NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were forced to abort their planned mission to the orbital laboratory. They were reassigned to the Expedition 59 mission, targeted to launch Feb. 28, 2019.

Successful commercial partnerships with Northrop Grumman and SpaceX for cargo resupply resulted in five missions delivering more than 32,000 pounds of critical supplies to the International Space Station. The SpaceX Dragon capsule also returned more than 7,800 pounds of investigations and equipment to researchers on Earth.

NASA began operating a new space communications satellite to support more than 40 NASA missions in low-Earth orbit as well as astronauts living in space on the orbital laboratory, enabling it to continue communications support well into the next decade.

NASA continued to update the space communication and navigation networks that support 83 missions, returning data from the solar system, and beyond, back to Earth. This includes upgrading emergency communications ground stations that support the space station and refurbishing its Bermuda Tracking Station, which supports launches from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and will support launches of commercial crew to the space station and Orion/SLS missions to the Moon from Florida. The agency issued a call for studies to explore designs incorporating commercial elements into future space relay services.

NASA selected 13 companies to study the future of commercial human spaceflight in low-Earth orbit, including long-range opportunities for the International Space Station.

NASA and its space station partners marked the 20th anniversary of the launch and construction of the first elements of the International Space Station.

In April, the agency awarded Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company a contract to build the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft, designated the X-59, which will demonstrate quiet supersonic flight over land. In July, NASA signed an agreement with its French counterpart to collaborate on research predicting where sonic booms will be heard as supersonic aircraft fly overhead.

Acoustics experts at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland recently used the center’s Aero-Acoustic Propulsion Laboratory (AAPL) to complete an evaluation on a small-scale model of a Learjet engine exhaust, or nozzle, system.

In October, an X-59 model was tested in a wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia to collect data about the aircraft’s flight controls.

In November, the X-59 project completed a rigorous review and the agency committed to the project’s funding and development timeline.

Methods for measuring public perception of supersonic noise from the X-59 were tested over Galveston, Texas, using a NASA F/A-18 research jet.

Another major aeronautics focus was NASA’s ongoing work in Urban Air Mobility (UAM) – a safe and efficient system for passenger and cargo air transportation in and around urban areas.

In May, NASA partnered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry to demonstrate new Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) concepts that help maintain safe spacing between drones beyond visual line-of-sight.

In June, NASA’s remotely-piloted Ikhana aircraft successfully flew in the National Airspace System without a safety chase aircraft, relying on NASA-developed technology and moving the United States one step closer to normalizing unmanned aircraft operations in the national airspace.

In November, the agency announced plans for a UAM Grand Challenge.

NASA engineers used a test stand called AirVolt to test the cruise motors that will power NASA’s first fully electric X-plane, the X-57; the agency looked into how icing affects jet engines at high altitudes; completed a series of Acoustic Research Measurement flights that combined several technologies to achieve a greater than 70 percent reduction in airframe noise; and conducted research to furthered the ability to fly safely with newly configured, highly flexible wings by flying the X-56 to collect data on wing flutter models and ways to suppress it.

NASA worked in 2018 to help modernize and improve the nation’s air traffic management system by transfer to the FAA of NASA technology developed so aircraft arriving at busy airports can be managed more efficiently.

NASA and the Department of Energy demonstrated a new nuclear reactor power system that could provide surface power on the Moon and Mars.

A team of NASA engineers demonstrated the first: fully autonomous X-ray navigation in space, which could revolutionize NASA’s ability to pilot robotic spacecraft to the far reaches of the solar system and beyond. NASA announced 10 new lunar focused Tipping Point partnerships with six U.S. companies.

The Robotic Refueling Mission 3 launched to the space station aboard a SpaceX rocket. The technology demonstration will store and transfer super-cold cryogenic fluid in space, helping mature capabilities for robotic satellite servicing and refueling.

The Integrated Solar Array and Reflectarray Antenna CubeSat mission advanced high-speed data downlink from space, a communications technology also used by two small satellites to relay InSight’s Mars landing data back to Earth.

A small satellite achieved space-to-ground laser communications for the first time. The Optical Communication and Sensor Demonstration mission transmitted at a data rate of 100 megabits per second – 50 times greater than standard communications systems for spacecraft this size.

NASA advanced additive manufacturing for rocket propulsion and successfully hot-fire tested a combustion chamber made using new 3D printing techniques.

A team of engineers completed ground demonstrations of the autonomous capture portion of the Restore-L satellite servicing project.

NASA’s three In-space Robotic Manufacturing and Assembly partners completed ground demonstrations of robotic arms, vision systems, additive techniques and other cutting-edge technologies to assemble structures in space.

NASA’s Flight Opportunities program funded more than 40 payload flight demonstrations, providing opportunities for researchers to test new technologies and helping mature the suborbital flight industry.

In September, the innovative heat shield technology, Adaptable Deployable Entry Placement Technology conducted a flight test.

NASA awarded more than 550 small business contracts, totaling more than $180 million.

NASA scientists using an array of NASA satellite observations have mapped locations around the world where the availability of freshwater is changing. The study found that Earth’s wet land areas are getting wetter and dry areas are getting drier.
NASA satellites were used to help combat a potential outbreak of life-threatening cholera in Yemen.

In November, NASA scientists and satellite data analysts worked daily to produce maps and damage assessments for disaster managers battling major wildfires near Los Angeles and in Northern California.

A major international climate assessment funded by NASA and the ESA determined that ice losses from Antarctica have tripled since 2012, causing sea levels to rise faster today than at any time in the past 25 years.

NASA launched the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD), its first mission to provide unprecedented measurements of the temperature and composition of Earth’s upper atmosphere.

During 2018 teachers-turned-astronauts Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold inspired thousands of students and educators through live events and video lessons from space.

NASA continues to offer educators and nonprofits low-cost opportunities to conduct research in space through its CubeSat Launch Initiative, including kicking off its 10th annual call for submissions, while NASA and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Foundation are engaging K-12 students with a series of Future Engineers challenges.

NASA engaged in public events including: a National Symphony Orchestra Pops concert; “Space, the Next Frontier” concert celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; “Spirit of Apollo” tribute from Washington National Cathedral; First Man press junket and red-carpet screening; Space Symposium; USA Science & Engineering Festival; International Balloon Fiesta; International Observe the Moon Night; Awesome Con; and EAA AirVenture, more than five million people had the chance to interact with representatives of America’s space agency.

NASA’s digital communications team won another Webby Award and four People’s Voice awards in 2018., the agency’s primary website, received its third consecutive, and 10th overall, People’s Voice Award in the Government & Civil Innovation category.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory received an Emmy Award in 2018 for Outstanding Original Interactive Program for its coverage of the Cassini mission’s Grand Finale at Saturn in September 2017.

NASA’s social media presence grew in 2018 to more than 186.9 million total followers across all accounts and platforms. The agency has the most followers of any agency or department in the federal government on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Google+. The agency also hosted 25 NASA Socials this year, bringing together more than 880 followers who engage with NASA via social media for unique in-person experiences of exploration and discovery.

To learn more about NASA’s missions, research and discoveries, visit:

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Aerospace and Defense

Jones appointed to powerful Senate Armed Services Committee

Chip Brownlee



After a brief stint with no representation on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, Alabama is back in the mix.

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones has been appointed to the influential committee tasked with overseeing the nation’s armed forces, national security and military research and development. Jones will assume his position on the committee when the 116th Congress convenes in January.

Alabama is home to five military bases, which employ 8,500 active-duty service members and more than 23,000 civilians. With Jones’ appointment, Alabama will regain some representation for the aerospace industry in Huntsville and the shipbuilding industry in Mobile, both of which have deep ties to the military.

In 2017, the Department of Defense spent $7.7 billion on contracts in Alabama. Alabama hasn’t had any representation on the committee since Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions left the Senate to become attorney general and his temporary replacement, Luther Strange, lost the Republican primary to Roy Moore.

More than 375,000 veterans, including 65,000 retirees, live in Alabama.

“Alabama and its citizens have long played a significant role in our national defense, from building or maintaining ships and other vehicles to leading cutting-edge research and development to volunteering to serve in our armed forces,” Jones said. “It is vital that we have a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee, a role that I am honored to be able to fill in the next Congress.”


Jones said he is committed to serving as Alabama’s advocate for a strong national defense, which also means a strong and prosperous economy in our state.

“I look forward to working with Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Reed to advocate for our service members and their families, and for a robust national defense posture that protects our interests at home and abroad,” Jones said.

Democrats had to fill three seats on the committee after losing three of the senior Democrats who were serving there. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida; Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri; and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, all lost their re-election to the Senate, leaving a gaping hole for the Democrats. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, is the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee.

“Senator Jones is a tremendous advocate for Alabama and a true champion for our service members and their families,” Reed said. “I am pleased to welcome him to the committee and know he’ll continue working on a bipartisan basis to help keep America strong militarily and economically.”

Jones will remain on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where his office says he will continue to advocate for improved access to health care and quality educational opportunities for Alabamians.

Jones will also continue to serve on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and the Senate Special Committee on Aging. He will no longer serve on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.


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Aerospace and Defense

NASA: OSIRIS-Rex has discovered water on Asteroid Bennu

Brandon Moseley



NASA announced Monday that its Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft has already discovered water locked inside the clays that make up its scientific target, the asteroid Bennu.

During the mission’s approach phase, between mid-August and early December, the spacecraft traveled 1.4 million miles on its journey from Earth to arrive at a location 12 miles from Bennu last week. During this time, the science team on Earth aimed three of the spacecraft’s instruments towards Bennu and began making the mission’s first scientific observations of the asteroid.

NASA announced that data obtained from the spacecraft’s two spectrometers, the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) and the OSIRIS-REx

Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) reveals that the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as “hydroxyls.” The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, Bennu’s rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.

“The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” said OVIRS deputy instrument scientist Amy Simon at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system.”

Additionally, data obtained from the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) corroborate ground-based telescopic observations of Bennu and confirm the original model developed in 2013 by OSIRIS-REx Science Team Chief Michael Nolan and collaborators. That model closely predicted the asteroid’s actual shape, with Bennu’s diameter, rotation rate, inclination, and overall shape presented almost exactly as projected.


One outlier from the predicted shape model is the size of the large boulder near Bennu’s south pole. The ground-based shape model calculated this boulder to be at least 33 feet (10 meters) in height. Preliminary calculations from OCAMS observations show that the boulder is closer to 164 feet (50 meters) in height, with a width of approximately 180 feet (55 meters).

Bennu’s surface material is a mix of very rocky, boulder-filled regions and a few relatively smooth regions that lack boulders. However, the quantity of boulders on the surface is higher than expected. The team will make further observations at closer ranges to more accurately assess where a sample can be taken on Bennu to later be returned to Earth. OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission.

Space exploration and rocket manufacturing and design are major Alabama industries. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville employs thousands of Alabamians.

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Aerospace and Defense

Voyager 2 has left the heliosphere

Brandon Moseley



The Voyagers have gone where no man-made spacecraft have gone before. For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars. NASA’s Voyager 2 probe follows Voyager 1 and has exited the heliosphere, the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

Members of NASA’s Voyager team discussed the findings at a news conference on at Monday at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington. Only Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have ever journeyed this far from Earth.

Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. Voyager 1 crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.

Voyager 2 now is slightly more than 11 billion miles from Earth. Mission operators still can communicate with Voyager 2 as it enters this new phase of its journey, but the information, which is moving at the speed of light, takes about 16.5 hours to travel from the spacecraft to Earth. By comparison, light traveling from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth.

The most compelling evidence of Voyager 2’s exit from the heliosphere came from its onboard Plasma Science Experiment (PLS), an instrument that stopped working on Voyager 1 in 1980, long before that probe crossed the heliopause. Until recently, the space surrounding Voyager 2 was filled predominantly with plasma flowing out from our Sun. This outflow, called the solar wind, creates a bubble, the heliosphere, that envelopes the planets in our solar system. The PLS uses the electrical current of the plasma to detect the speed, density, temperature, pressure and flux of the solar wind. The PLS aboard Voyager 2 observed a steep decline in the speed of the solar wind particles on Nov. 5. Since that date, the plasma instrument has observed no solar wind flow in the environment around Voyager 2, which makes mission scientists confident the probe has left the heliosphere.

“Working on Voyager makes me feel like an explorer, because everything we’re seeing is new,” said John Richardson, principal investigator for the PLS instrument and a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Even though Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause in 2012, it did so at a different place and a different time, and without the PLS data. So we’re still seeing things that no one has seen before.”


In addition to the plasma data, Voyager’s science team members have seen evidence from three other onboard instruments: the cosmic ray subsystem, the low energy charged particle instrument and the magnetometer. The readings from those instruments are consistent with the conclusion that Voyager 2 has crossed the heliopause. Voyager’s team members are eager to continue to study the data from these other onboard instruments to get a clearer picture of the environment through which Voyager 2 is traveling.

“There is still a lot to learn about the region of interstellar space immediately beyond the heliopause,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at Caltech in Pasadena, California.

Together, the two Voyagers provide a detailed glimpse of how our heliosphere interacts with the constant interstellar wind flowing from beyond. Their observations complement data from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), a mission that is remotely sensing that boundary. NASA also is preparing the upcoming Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP), due to launch in 2024) to capitalize on the Voyagers’ observations.

“Voyager has a very special place for us in our heliophysics fleet,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “Our studies start at the Sun and extend out to everything the solar wind touches. To have the Voyagers sending back information about the edge of the Sun’s influence gives us an unprecedented glimpse of truly uncharted territory.”

While the probes have left the heliosphere, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have not yet left the solar system, and won’t be leaving anytime soon. The boundary of the solar system is considered to be beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun’s gravity. The width of the Oort Cloud is not known precisely, but it is estimated to begin at about 1,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun and to extend to about 100,000 AU. One AU is the distance from the Sun to Earth. It will take about 300 years for Voyager 2 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly 30,000 years to fly beyond it.
The Voyager probes are powered using heat from the decay of radioactive material, contained in a device called a radioisotope thermal generator (RTG). The power output of the RTGs diminishes by about four watts per year, which means that various parts of the Voyagers, including the cameras on both spacecraft, have been turned off over time to manage power.

“I think we’re all happy and relieved that the Voyager probes have both operated long enough to make it past this milestone,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Now we’re looking forward to what we’ll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause.”

Voyager 2 was launched in 1977, 16 days before Voyager 1, and both have traveled well beyond their original destinations. The spacecraft were built to last five years and conduct close-up studies of Jupiter and Saturn. However, as the mission continued, additional flybys of the two outermost giant planets, Uranus and Neptune, proved possible. As the spacecraft flew across the solar system, remote-control reprogramming was used to endow the Voyagers with greater capabilities than they possessed when they left Earth. Their two-planet mission became a four-planet mission. Their five-year lifespans have stretched to 41 years, making Voyager 2 NASA’s longest running mission.

The Voyager story has impacted not only generations of current and future scientists and engineers, but also Earth’s culture, including film, art and music. Each spacecraft carries a Golden Record of Earth sounds, pictures and messages. Since the spacecraft could last billions of years, these circular time capsules could one day be the only traces of human civilization. A Voyager probe even appeared in Star Trek the Motion Picture, as the villain.

Voyager’s mission controllers communicate with the probes using NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a global system for communicating with interplanetary spacecraft. The DSN consists of three clusters of antennas in Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia.

The Voyager Interstellar Mission is a part of NASA’s Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL built and operates the twin Voyager spacecraft. NASA’s DSN, managed by JPL, is an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe. The network also supports selected Earth-orbiting missions. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency, operates both the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, part of the DSN, and the Parkes Observatory, which NASA has been using to downlink data from Voyager 2 since Nov. 8.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville employs thousands of Alabamians.

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