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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.

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“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.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.


Aerospace and Defense

Mark McDaniel reappointed to NASA Human Exploration and Operations Advisory Committee

Brandon Moseley




Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, announced Thursday NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine’s reappointment of Huntsville’s Mark McDaniel to a two-year term on the Human Exploration and Operations Committee of the NASA Advisory Council.

Brooks initially recommended McDaniel in 2018 to Bridenstine. Bridenstine is a personal friend and former House colleague of Brooks. Brooks cited McDaniel’s past record of exemplary service on the NASA Advisory Council. The NAC is NASA’s highest civilian advisory board.

“Mark McDaniel has done an exemplary job advising NASA on its future missions as a member of NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee,” Brooks said, praising the decision. “Mark’s past service and qualifications make him an excellent choice for reappointment to another term on the committee. I congratulate Mark on his reappointment.”

“I greatly appreciate my friend NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine for his thoughtful consideration in reappointing Mark McDaniel,” Brooks continued. “Jim’s leadership at NASA has been exemplary, and I am glad he recognized Mark’s contributions to this important NASA advisory committee.”

“Mark McDaniel has been a dedicated member of the NAC for several years, and we look forward to him continuing to provide his expertise to the Committee,” said Bridenstine. “As we prepare to go forward to the Moon and beyond, it is critical that NASA has top experts like Mark on our team. His wealth of knowledge is a great benefit to the Artemis program, as well as our mission to send human explorers to Mars.”

“Congressman Mo Brooks has provided great leadership to our nation, state and NASA,” McDaniel said. “I thank Congressman Brooks for recommending my reappointment to the NASA Advisory Council- Human Exploration and Operations Committee.”

“I am confident that under the leadership of Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the tremendous team he has put together, our nation will put the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024,” McDaniel added. “Under Administrator Bridenstine’s leadership NASA is setting the stage for human exploration of Mars and the heavens beyond.”

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Then-NASA administrator Daniel Goldin appointed McDaniel to the NASA Advisory Council in October 2000, and then-NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe reappointed McDaniel to the council in November 2002 and November 2004. During McDaniel’s tenure on the NAC, President George W. Bush announced the “Moon, Mars, and Beyond Initiative,” which set the nation on a more aggressive pace for space exploration.

On Jan. 26, 2007, McDaniel received the NASA Public Service Medal for his “Leadership and Council to America’s Space Agency, his advocacy of Human Space Flight and Exploration and dedication to the Aerospace Community at large.”

Brooks is in his fifth term representing Alabama’s 5th Congressional District. NASA and its contractors are a major employer in the 5th District.


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Aerospace and Defense

Jones bill aimed at bringing jobs back from China included in Senate NDAA

Brandon Moseley



Sen. Doug Jones speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate. (CSPAN)

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said Tuesday that the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act will include a bipartisan proposal he sponsored last month to incentivize investments in American semiconductor manufacturing businesses instead of Chinese-owned companies.

The provision was approved in the Senate on Tuesday in a 96 to 4 vote as an amendment to the Senate version of the NDAA.

“We all know that China is a bad actor on the world stage, which is why it is so crucial that the United States continues to lead the world in semiconductor technology,” Jones said. “Not only will this provision help bring jobs back from China, it will incentivize investment in Alabama companies and will strengthen our national security by reducing reliance on foreign manufacturing.”

The Alabama Micro/Nano Science and Technology Center at Auburn University is a world leader in microelectrics engineering, and with 15 semiconductor companies in Alabama, the state stands to benefit substantially from increased investment in American semiconductor manufacturing.

Semiconductors are used in a large variety of electronic devices including smartphones, digital cameras, televisions and some computers. While the U.S. revolutionized the microelectronic industry and invented nearly all the key technology used to this day, competitors in China have made huge investments into their microelectronics industries in recent years to challenge and undercut U.S. leadership.

By 2030, Asia is projected to control 83 percent of the global semiconductor manufacturing supply while domestic production could be less than 10 percent. Jones said that if this were to happen, it would make the U.S. reliant on foreign-made microelectronics and would potentially pose huge risks to U.S. national and economic security.

The Jones amendment would direct the secretary of commerce to create a grant program for constructing, expanding or modernizing commercial semiconductor fabrication, assembly, testing, packaging and advanced R&D facilities in the U.S.

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It would also direct the secretary of defense to create a partnership program with the private sector to encourage the development of advanced, measurably secure microelectronics for use by the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, critical infrastructure and other national-security applications.

The amendment also requires the secretary of commerce to commence a review within 120 days assessing the state of the U.S. semiconductor industrial base. It establishes a Multilateral Microelectronics Security Fund, with which the U.S., its allies and partners will work to reach agreements promoting consistency in their policies related to microelectronics, greater transparency including supply chains and greater alignment in export control and foreign direct investment policies.

The amendment would direct the president to establish a subcommittee on semiconductor technology and innovation within the National Science and Technology Council and directs the secretary of commerce to establish a national semiconductor technology center to conduct research, fund semiconductor startups and a Manufacturing USA Institute.


Finally, the amendment creates a National Advance Packaging Manufacturing Program, and encourages the secretary of labor to work with the private sector on workforce training and apprenticeships in semiconductor manufacturing.

The House passed its own version of the NDAA on Tuesday. The Senate is expected to pass their version of the NDAA in the next few days. A conference committee will then be formed to address differences between the two bills in hopes of reaching a compromise version that will pass both chambers of Congress.

Jones faces former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville in the Nov. 3 general election.

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Aerospace and Defense

Byrne praises House passage of NDAA authorizing additional Austal ship

Brandon Moseley



Rep. Bradley Byrne speaks on the floor of the U.S. House. (CSPAN)

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the William “Mac” Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 by a vote of 295 to 125. Congressman Bradley Byrne is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which passed an earlier version of the NDAA on July 1, 2020, by a vote of 56 to 0.

The bill includes an amendment authored by Byrne authorizing $260 million to construct an additional Expeditionary Fast Transport vessel at Austal Mobile. This year’s NDAA is named for Ranking Member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who chaired the committee during the 114th and 115th Congresses.

“The men and women of our Armed Services deserve our complete support, and I’m pleased that the House came together in a largely bipartisan manner to give our warfighters the resources necessary to protect us,” Byrne said. “Both in committee and on the House floor, all Members provided input to strengthen this bill, a practice that occurs far too little in today’s House. While I do not agree with everything in the bill, it remains worthy of support, and I’m hopeful that some of the partisan provisions added on the House floor will be removed through compromise with the Senate.”

Byrne said the additional Austal ship is important for Southwest Alabama.

“Importantly for Southwest Alabama, this bill passed with my amendment to authorize the construction of an additional EPF at the Austal shipyard in Mobile,” Byrne said. “I appreciate my Congressional colleagues for acknowledging Austal and the EPF’s importance to our national defense and for their support of the work performed by the 4,000 skilled men and women at Austal Mobile. Construction of this world-class vessel will move us even closer to the Navy’s goal of a 355-ship fleet.”

The NDAA sets policy and authorizes funding for the entire United States military and has been passed by the House each year for the previous 59 years. The Senate is currently considering its own version of the NDAA.

Byrne pointed out several highlights from this year’s NDAA including that it adheres to last year’s bipartisan budget agreement and fully funds the Trump administration’s request.

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The bill includes $740.5 billion total for National Defense Discretionary programs, including $130.6 billion for procurement of advanced weapons systems and $106.2 billion for Research Development Test and Evaluation. The bill also funds a vital nuclear modernization programs to ensure that nuclear deterrent is safe and reliable. It fully funds the B-21 bomber, a new Columbia Class submarine along with an additional attack submarine, and begins work on the W93 warhead that will be critical to meet STRATCOM Commander requirements for the sea-based deterrent.

Byrne says the NDAA also takes a tough stance on China by laying the foundation for an Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative to deter China, modeled on the European Deterrence Initiative. The NDAA increases funding in emergent technologies, such as AI, to maintain a technical edge against China, and starts taking financial actions to pursue China’s graduation from the World Bank and greater transparency with China’s debt.

Byrne said that the NDAA provides support for troops and families, including a 3 percent pay raise.


Byrne said that the bill also deals with the COVID-19 response. It ensures that the Department of Defense has the diagnostic equipment, testing capabilities, and personal protective equipment necessary to protect our Armed Forces. It requires the National Security Strategy to address the provision of drugs, biologics, vaccines and other critical medical equipment to ensure combat readiness and force health protection.

Byrne said that the NDAA includes almost $600 million above the President’s Budget Request for science and technology and investments in critical emerging technology areas including artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and biotechnology.

The bill changed considerably on the floor of the House. Some GOP Congressmen including Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, voted for the bill in committee and against the bill on the House floor because of some of those changes. President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the bill unless changes to the bill are made before it reaches his desk.

The Senate and House versions will go to a conference committee where a compromise version will be drafted that can pass both Houses.

Byrne represents Alabama’s 1st Congressional District. He is leaving Congress at the end of the year.

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Aerospace and Defense

Aderholt critical of Democrats’ NASA budget proposal

Brandon Moseley




Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, was critical of a Democratic-sponsored spending bill that level funds NASA at 2020 levels for Fiscal Year 2021.

“One of my greatest duties in Congress is serving as a member on the House Committee on Appropriations and as Ranking Member on the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee,” Aderholt said in a statement to constituents. “As a member of these two bodies, it is my responsibility to diligently review the upcoming fiscal year spending bill. This year, NASA has been a huge topic, especially with the Artemis missions and President Trump’s request for an increase in the space programs budget.”

Aderholt said he thought it was a “mistake” to not give NASA more money this year.

“Space exploration and carrying Moon missions as well as planning for Mars missions spurs amazing innovations in the private sector,” Aderholt said. “Maintaining our leadership in space is also a national security issue. Overall, we are able to partner with other nations, but we must never be in a position of not controlling our own fate in space. That’s why I criticized the Democrats spending plan during a subcommittee bill markup this week and advocated for President Trump’s increased budget request for NASA. There is much our two parties can agree on with regards to the space program, and I look forward to continuing working on the space budget as this year’s legislative process continues.”

President Donald Trump had requested a 12 percent increase to the NASA budget. Much of that money would have gone to funding the Space Launch System and the Artemis mission to the Moon. House Democrats have proposed a zero percent increase.

“The flat NASA allocation reveals a determination to rebuke America’s moon-to-Mars Artemis initiative,” said Aderholt, the ranking member of the CJS subcommittee. “President Trump rightly wants more funding to reenergize America’s leadership in space, so much so he’s willing to pay for it within an overall austere budget request, and we should follow that lead.”

NASA is targeting 6:50 a.m. CST Thursday, July 30, for the launch of its Mars 2020 Perseverance rover on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission is designed to better understand the geology and climate of Mars and seek signs of ancient life on the Red Planet using the robotic scientist, which weighs just under 2,300 pounds (1,043 kilograms) and is the size of a small car.

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The rover will collect and store a set of rock and soil samples that could be returned to Earth by future Mars sample return missions. It also will test new technologies to benefit future robotic and human exploration of Mars. Perseverance is part of America’s larger Moon to Mars exploration approach that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

NASA hopes to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024 and establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through the Artemis program.

Aderholt is in his 12th term representing Alabama’s 4th Congressional District. He faces Rick Neighbors in the Nov. 3 general election.


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