In the early hours of New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft hurtled past Ultima Thule, the most distant space rock we have ever visited.
Ultima Thule is located in the Kuiper belt, some 6.6 billion
kilometres from Earth. Though low in resolution, the images sent back by
the probe suggest that it is shaped like a bowling pin with two
unequally sized bulbous ends.
The object is around 32 kilometres long and at most 16 kilometres
wide. It appears to be spinning like a propeller, with its axis pointing
towards New Horizons. However, we can’t yet rule out the possibility
that it is actually two objects orbiting each other.
New Horizons began its long journey in 2006, reaching its primary destination, Pluto, in 2015 before changing course for Ultima Thule. It will send back more images from the rock in the coming months, along with data on its surface composition and temperature.
The Kuiper belt is made up of remnants from when the solar system formed, so this information may teach us something about the origin of planets including Earth. New Horizons will continue to explore the Kuiper belt until at least 2021.
On Dec. 16, 1962, NASA launched the Explorer 16 spacecraft to study micrometeoroids near Earth.
mission would determine how likely it would be for spacecraft to get
damaged by the small space rocks and dust particles around the Earth.
The cylindrical spacecraft measured about 6 feet long and 2 feet in
diameter. It carried instruments that could detect when meteoroids hit
the spacecraft and assess the resulting damage.
Data from this mission helped scientists determine the size, number, distribution, and momentum of dust particles in the near-earth environment.
On Nov. 18, 2013, NASA launched the MAVEN spacecraft to Mars.
The name MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN. The spacecraft is an orbiter designed to help scientists figure out what happened to Mars’ water and its atmosphere. Mars is dry today, but data from several Mars missions suggest that it was a much wetter environment a long time ago. MAVEN is tracking the rate of atmospheric loss from Mars.
The planet has a super thin atmosphere that has been leaking into space for a few billion years. Scientists think that when Mars lost its atmosphere, water dried up on the surface as a result. Solar storms that blast radiation into the solar system appear to have blasted away some of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere once kept Mars warm enough to sustain water, and losing that greenhouse gas turned Mars into a cold and dry place.
MAVEN’s science mission ended in 2016, but the spacecraft is still used to relay communications with other missions on Mars.
On Oct. 21, 2008, the Indian Space Research Organization launched its first mission to the moon. The mission was named Chandrayaan-1, and it consisted of both an orbiter and an impactor.
Chandrayaan-1 launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on an Indian rocket called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV-XL. It arrived in lunar orbit about three weeks later and dropped off the Moon Impact Probe, which crashed into the moon on Nov. 14.
The rest of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft stayed in orbit, where it collected and transmitted data from the moon to Earth for about a year. The mission ended abruptly 14 months ahead of its planned end date when scientists lost contact with the probe.
Chandrayaan-1 did more than just demonstrate that India’s space program was capable of launching missions to the moon; it also returned some amazing science results, like evidence of water ice on the moon.