Trans-Pluto dwarf planet Ultima Thule, first spaceship photos

This 30 August video says about itself:

NASA’s Pluto probe spots the next deep space rock it’s zooming toward

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, known for flying by Pluto in 2015, has finally spotted its next target at the edge of the Solar System. On August 16th, the distant probe captured its first images of the space rock it’s currently zooming toward — an icy body nearly 20 miles across that’s been nicknamed Ultima Thule.

It’s a major milestone for the New Horizons team as they prepare the spacecraft for its rendezvous with Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day 2019.

The New Horizons spacecraft has been en route to Ultima Thule ever since October 2015, just a few months after it flew by Pluto in July.

Following the Pluto meet-up, NASA decided to extend the New Horizons mission so that the vehicle would fly by another target in the distant Solar System. The mission team selected Ultima Thule, also named 2014 MU69, since it’s in an ideal position beyond Pluto, and it didn’t take too much fuel for New Horizons to change course to meet up with the rock.

By Christopher Crockett, 2:39pm, August 29, 2018:

New Horizons has sent back the first images of Ultima Thule, its next target

New Horizons has its next destination in sight.

The spacecraft, which buzzed Pluto in 2015, captured its first images on August 16 of the remote icy world nicknamed Ultima Thule, confirming that New Horizons is on track for its January 1 flyby. With about 160 million kilometers to go — roughly the same distance as Earth is from the sun — the tiny world appears as no more than a faint speck in the probe’s camera.

The pictures also barely set a new record: At roughly 6 billion kilometers from Earth, they are the farthest images ever taken. For decades, that honor was held by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which in 1990 snapped pictures of Earth and many of our neighboring planets from nearly the same distance.

Officially dubbed 2014 MU69, Ultima Thule is part of the Kuiper Belt, a field of frozen detritus left over from the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago. By sending New Horizons to take pictures and measure the chemical makeup of Ultima’s surface, researchers hope to unearth clues about the origin of our solar system.


KELT-9b, hottest planet where iron becomes gas

This 15 August 2018 video says about itself:

KELT-9b: This Planet’s Atmosphere Is so Hot It Can Vaporize Heavy Metals

Last year, astronomers made an intriguing discovery: a scorching planet, hotter than any other known to man, where dayside temperatures may exceed 4,000 Kelvin (6740 degrees Fahrenheit). That would make it hotter than many stars.

Now, further intriguing details of this unusual exoplanet, dubbed KELT-9b, have emerged.

According to a study published in the journal Nature, the planet’s atmosphere contains heavy metals, such as iron and titanium, which take the form of a vaporized gas because of the extreme heat.

Iron is the most abundant transition metal—those in the center of the periodic table. However, it has never been directly detected in the atmosphere of an exoplanet because it is highly refractory, meaning it has a high melting point and, therefore, requires very high temperatures to be turned into a gas.

KELT-9b, which is located around 650 light years away, belongs to a class of planets known as “ultra-hot Jupiters”—Jupiter-sized exoplanets that orbit extremely close to their host stars.

KELT-9b, for example, is 30 times closer to its star, KELT-9, than the Earth is to the Sun, completing an entire orbit in just 36 hours. As a result, like other ultra-hot Jupiters, its atmosphere becomes so hot that the chemistry within resembles that of a star more than a planet.

Currently, we do not know what KELT-9’s atmosphere looks like and how it can evolve under such conditions. To understand more, a team of researchers from the University of Bern created computer simulations of the planet’s atmosphere. These simulations predicted that it should be possible to detect metals like iron and titanium as single atoms because the bonds that usually join them together with other atoms will be broken by the high-energy collisions taking place between particles at extremely high temperatures.

Trump, Pence militarizing space

This 10 August 2018 music video from Britain is a parody of the Beatles song Across the Universe.

It says about itself:

Donald Trump’s Beatles tribute band launch their theme song for Space Force 2020.

The Tweetles – Across the Universe (Space Force 2020)

Space is very YUGE and there
are lots of bad hombres out there
So screw free healthcare and let’s go
Across the universe!

Saturn’s rings, Olympus Mons
Let’s knock ‘em down and build a wall
Let’s make our planet great again
Fly, oh crew of Space Force!

No one’s blowing up my world
No one’s blowing up my world
No one’s blowing up my world
Only I get to do that

Little green men, be prepared for fire and fury
The likes of which have never been unleashed
Across the universe!

One small step for man could be one bigly leap for all mankind
I bet they’ve even heard of me
Across the universe!
Fly, oh crew of Space Force! Um…

No one’s blowing up my world
No one’s blowing up my world
No one’s blowing up my world
Only I get to do that

By Trévon Austin in the USA:

White House and Pentagon advance plan to create a Space Force

11 August 2018

In a speech Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence promoted President Trump’s plan to create a “Space Force” as a sixth branch of the US military—on par with the Navy, Air Force, Marines, Army and Coast Guard—aimed at fighting wars in space.

Pence called the initiative “an idea whose time has come” and stated the Trump Administration planned to have the branch operational by 2020. In his speech at the Pentagon, Pence called for Congress to supply an additional $8 billion for space security systems over the next five years.

“The time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of our armed forces, to prepare for the next battlefield where America’s best and bravest will be called to deter and defeat a new generation of threats to our people, to our nation”, he said.

In his typical chauvinist fashion, President Trump has said, “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space; we must have American dominance in space.” The chest-thumping rhetoric conceals an inconvenient truth: the US manned space program is moribund rather than dominant, dependent on Russian rockets to send astronauts to the International Space Station. Many other nations have mastered the basic technologies associated with reaching space, which are now some 60 years old.

Pence, in his inflammatory speech, said that “other nations are seeking to disrupt our space-based systems and challenge American supremacy in space as never before.” The vice president claimed China and Russia have transformed space into a warfighting domain, and stated, in a show of menace, “the United States will not shrink from this challenge.”

When Trump publicly announced his intentions in June, he made it clear that the creation of a Space Force was directly linked to preparations for war with Russia and China. The White House pointed to Russia’s and China’s improved satellite capabilities as a pretext for the US militarization of space.

Trump’s initial proposal for a Space Force met opposition within his own cabinet and the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense James Mattis initially opposed its creation on the grounds that it would “likely present a narrower and even more parochial approach to space operations.” He was also responding to internal pressures within the Pentagon, where the Air Force views a Space Force as a subtraction from its resources and powers.

Senator Bill Nelson, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted his opposition, saying Trump could not create a sixth branch of the military without congressional approval. But another top Democrat, Jim Cooper, ranking member of the House Armed Forces Committee, declared his support for the plan.

Pence’s announcement indicates a shifting mood in the upper levels of the state. Following Pence’ speech, the Pentagon unveiled a report with steps that would be necessary to create a Space Force, known as United States Space Command. According to Pence, Mattis even said that space “is becoming a contested war-fighting domain, and we have to adapt to that reality.”

The drive to expand America’s war machine into space stems from concerns over antisatellite weaponry allegedly being developed by Russia and China. An intelligence report in February claimed that Russia and China will be able to shoot down American satellites within two to three years. In 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites using a missile launched from the Earth. Russia has also tested a missile that can be used to target satellites.

“We could be deaf, dumb and blind within seconds,” Cooper said in February at a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Seldom has a great nation been so vulnerable.”

According to the World Atlas, the United States operates 123 of the approximately 320 military satellites currently orbiting Earth, which serve a variety of functions such as reconnaissance, GPS and communications.

The satellite network is an essential component to US imperialism. GPS satellites help guide aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and fighter jets over Syria. The satellites also help organize drone strikes across the Middle East in countries such as Yemen and allow intelligence agencies to spy on foreign targets.

The US military apparatus is concerned with maintaining its supremacy in all territory possible, including space. Establishing and maintaining space superiority has been an element of US military planning since Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), better known as “Star Wars”, in 1983.

The US military particularly sees China as a threat to its dream of domination in space. China’s space program has undergone rapid development in the past 30 years. China became the third country to conduct a manned spaceflight with the launch of Shenzhou 5 in 2003. Russia maintains a space program inherited from the Soviet Union.

The introduction of a Space Command is tied to the escalation of imperialist intervention and preparation for great power conflict with Russia, China, and even Europe. Trump made his war aim clear in June when he stated the US should not have “China and Russia and other countries leading us” in space.

STONE POSTS NAZI SYMBOL Trump’s former campaign adviser Roger Stone posted an edited image of himself, Trump and many others affiliated with the administration dressed in space suits adorned with swastikas on Instagram. [HuffPost]

Accessory to War’ probes the uneasy alliance between space science and the military. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest book examines the partnership between scientists and soldiers. By Maria Temming, 10:00am, September 4, 2018.

Mule deer, cougars studied with satellites

This November 2015 video says about itself:

Top 3: Cougar Facts | Big Cat Week

Learn some little-known facts about mountain lions.

From S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University in the USA:

NASA satellites assist states in estimating abundance of key wildlife species

August 9, 2018

Climate and land-use change are shrinking natural wildlife habitats around the world. Yet despite their importance to rural economies and natural ecosystems, remarkably little is known about the geographic distribution of most wild species — especially those that migrate seasonally over large areas. By combining NASA satellite imagery with wildlife surveys conducted by state natural resources agencies, a team of researchers at Utah State University and the University of Maryland, and the U.S. Geological Survey modeled the effects of plant productivity on populations of mule deer and mountain lions. Specifically, they mapped the abundance of both species over a climatically diverse region spanning multiple western states.

These models provide new insights into how differences in climate are transmitted through the food chain, from plants to herbivores and then to predators. Prey and predator abundance both increased with plant productivity, which is governed by precipitation and temperature. Conversely, animals responded to decreases in food availability by moving and foraging over larger areas, which could lead to increased conflict with humans. David Stoner, lead author of the study, “Climatically driven changes in primary production propagate through trophic levels” published today in the journal Global Change Biology, remarked that, “We expected to see that satellite measurements of plant productivity would explain the abundance of deer. However, we were surprised to see how closely the maps of productivity also predicted the distribution of the mountain lion, their major predator.”

The study also reveals a disruption in the way scientists study the biosphere. Joseph Sexton, Chief Scientist of terraPulse, Inc. and a coauthor on the study, described the changing technology, “Up until about a decade ago, we were limited to analyzing landscapes through highly simplified maps representing a single point in time. This just doesn’t work in regions experiencing rapid economic or environmental change — the map is irrelevant by the time it’s finished.” Now, given developments in machine learning, “big data” computation, and the “cloud”, ecologists and other scientists are studying large, dynamic ecosystems in ever-increasing detail and resolution. “We’re now mining global archives of satellite imagery spanning nearly forty years, we’re updating our maps in pace with ecosystem changes, and we’re getting that information out to government agencies and private land managers working in the field.”

The authors predict that, by enabling land managers to monitor rangeland and agricultural productivity, forest loss and regrowth, urban growth, and the dynamics of wildlife habitat, this expanding stream of information will help humanity adapt to climate and other environmental changes. Stoner noted, “State wildlife agencies are tasked with estimating animal abundance in remote and rugged habitats, which is difficult and expensive. Integration of satellite imagery can help establish baseline population estimates, monitor environmental conditions, and identify populations at risk to climate and land-use change.”

Ancient organic molecules discovery on Mars

This NASA video from today in the USA says about itself:

The Curiosity rover has discovered ancient organic molecules on Mars, embedded within sedimentary rocks that are billions of years old. News Release: here.

From Chemical & Engineering News today:

Ancient organic molecules found on Mars

Curiosity rover also reports data on the red planet’s mysterious methane plumes

by Mark Peplow

Wherever life flourishes, it leaves a calling card written in organic molecules—and researchers have spent decades hoping to uncover these telltale signatures on Mars.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has now given those hopes a considerable boost after finding organic deposits trapped in exposed rocks that were formed roughly 3.5 billion years ago (Science 2018). The rover’s discovery at Gale Crater shows that organic molecules were present when that part of the red planet hosted a potentially habitable lake. It also proves that these traces can survive through the ages, ready to be discovered by robot explorers.

“We started this search 40 years ago, and now we finally have a set of organic molecules that tells us this stuff is preserved near the surface,” says Jennifer L. Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who led the study.

Curiosity gathered mudstone samples and gradually heated them to 860 ºC, using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to study the gases produced. It identified a smorgasbord of molecules, including thiophene, methylthiophenes, and methanethiol, which are probably fragments from larger organic macromolecules in the sediment. These organic deposits may be something like kerogen, the fossilized organic matter found in sedimentary rocks on Earth that contains a jumble of waxy hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The organic compounds that were originally transformed into martian kerogen could have come from three possible sources—geological activity, meteorites, or living organisms—but Curiosity’s data offer no insight on that question. “The most plausible source of these organics is from outside the planet,” says Inge Loes ten Kate, an astrobiologist at Utrecht University, who was not involved in the research. She notes that roughly 100 to 300 metric tons of organic molecules arrive on Mars every year, hitching a ride on interplanetary dust particles. “Three billion years ago, it was much more hectic in the solar system”, ten Kate says, so there would have been much larger deliveries of organics via interplanetary travelers.

Curiosity had previously detected chlorocarbons in martian soil, which were probably generated by reactions with the abundant perchlorate found on the planet’s surface. In contrast, the mudstone samples have delivered “what we expect of natural organic matter,” Eigenbrode says.

Methane mystery

Meanwhile, the rover’s infrared spectrometer has been tackling the long-standing puzzle of martian methane (Science 2018). Orbiting Mars probes, along with telescopes on Earth, have previously seen occasional plumes of methane in the planet’s atmosphere, raising speculation that the gas could have come from geological activity or even methane-producing organisms.

Curiosity has taken methane measurements over 55 Earth months, spanning three martian years, which now reveal that the atmospheric concentration of the gas varies seasonally between 0.24 and 0.65 parts per billion by volume. “This is the first time that Mars methane has shown any repeatability”, says Christopher R. Webster at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the work. “It always seemed kind of random before.”

The rover also saw brief spikes in methane concentration to about 7 ppbv, which is consistent with previous remote observations of plumes, says Michael J. Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who has been chasing martian methane for more than 15 years but was not involved in Curiosity’s latest findings. “The ground-based detection is very important because it confirms the methane is there,” he says.

The methane’s source is still an open question. But Webster’s team says that the seasonal cycle rules out one of the leading suggestions: that organic molecules, delivered to the surface by meteorites and space dust, were broken down by ultraviolet light to produce the gas.

Instead, the cyclical nature of the data suggests that methane could be stored deep underground in icy crystals called clathrates and slowly escape to the planet’s topsoils. Laboratory experiments suggest that the soil could temporarily hang on to the gas, releasing more of it in the warmer martian summer to produce the seasonal cycles.

Mars’s newest satellite, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), could help confirm that idea. It began to survey the whole planet for methane in April. “We’re all waiting with bated breath to see what they find,” Webster says. TGO should also measure the carbon isotope ratios in the methane it detects, which may provide hints at a biological or geological origin. And in 2021, ESA expects to land a rover on Mars that could drill up to 2 meters below the surface, where there might be better-preserved organics compared with the ones collected at Gale Crater, Eigenbrode says.

These lines of evidence could eventually help resolve questions about our own origins. Mars and Earth were once quite similar places, ten Kate says, yet life apparently failed to gain a foothold on the red planet. “Was there really no life on Mars, or did it just not survive?” she says. The answer could shed light on the crucial conditions needed to nurture the first life-forms on our own world.

See also here.

Opportunity rover waits out a huge dust storm on Mars. The 14-year-old craft has weathered storms before, but none this big, by Lisa Grossman, 5:56pm, June 11, 2018.

A team of astronomers using data collected from the Mars Express spacecraft have published 29 low-frequency radar images collected between May 2012 and December 2015. Taken together, they reveal a change in the structure and the composition of the material beneath the surface of Mars’ south pole that so far has only one explanation: the presence of liquid water under the surface of the red planet. This is a milestone in the 54 years of Mars space exploration: here.

Spacecraft New Horizons in Kuiper Belt

This 4 June 2018 Sky News video says about itself:

The New Horizons spacecraft is about to leave hibernation to begin preparations for its January 2019 flyby of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69, nicknamed “Ultima Thule”.

The flyby, set to occur in the early morning of January 1, 2019, will be the second for New Horizons, following its historic 2015 Pluto flyby.

It will also be the furthest flyby from Earth ever performed by a spacecraft.

Initial searches for a post-Pluto flyby target for New Horizons began in 2011, 4 years before its flyby of Pluto. The New Horizons team was aiming for potential KBOs around 50-100km in diameter.

At first, only large ground-based telescopes were used in the search but were unable to find any KBOs that New Horizons could reach with its limited fuel supply.

Eventually, the Hubble Space Telescope took over the search, and discovered three possible targets for the flyby, given the temporary names “PT1”, “PT2”, and “PT3”, with the “PT” standing for “Potential Target”. PT1 and PT3 were seen as the best targets, while PT2 was dropped due to it being further away from New Horizon’s path than the two others.

Both PT1 and PT3 had their advantages and disadvantages. For example, PT1 would require less fuel to get to than PT3, but is likely smaller than PT3.

On August 28, 2015, the New Horizons team announced they had chosen PT1 – which was given the temporary name “2014 MU69” – as the flyby target. From multiple observations by Hubble and other ground-based telescopes, MU69 was determined to be red, around 30km in diameter, and potentially a binary system.

By observing MU69’s shape as it passed in front of background stars – called on occultation – astronomers found that MU69 may be double-lobed – meaning that it could be comprised of two large, connected sections – or a binary system, composed of two similar objects orbiting each other.

An example of a binary system is Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Although they are not the same size, both objects orbit around a barycenter – a point of gravity between the two objects.

In October and November 2015, four maneuvers were performed by New Horizon’s hydrazine-fueled engines to set it up for a flyby of MU69 in January 2019.

In 2017, two small correction maneuvers were performed with the engines in order to further refine the flyby. On March 13, 2018, using public input from online polls and user-submitted names, MU69 was given the nickname “Ultima Thule” by the New Horizons team – meaning beyond the borders of the known world.

New Horizons will begin its approach phase of the MU69 flyby on August 16, 2018, when it will begin imaging MU69 and the area around it to begin acquiring data about the KBO and its surroundings. Also, New Horizons will look for potential debris that could pose a hazard to itself, such as moons or rings. Should any potential dangers be found, New Horizons has four planned opportunities to make trajectory changes from early October to early December 2018.

By Lisa Grossman, 10:51am, June 5, 2018:

New Horizons wakes up to begin Kuiper Belt exploration

The spacecraft will fly past a small rock nicknamed Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day

The spacecraft that raced past Pluto is back and ready to explore a whole new world.

NASA’s New Horizons probe woke up at 10:55 p.m. EDT on June 4 after a nearly six-month slumber, and news of the event reached Earth several hours later. The craft is now getting ready to fly past a small Kuiper Belt object called Ultima Thule (SN Online: 3/14/18).

New Horizons went into the last of a series of sleep modes on December 22, 2017, resting before continuing its exploration of the Kuiper Belt, the zone of small icy celestial bodies beyond Neptune (SN: 6/27/15, p. 16).

Hibernation is part of normal spacecraft operations, says mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute who is based in Boulder, Colo. “It saves wear and tear on the system, and it frees up personnel to do flyby planning.”

“IT’S HAPPENING! IT’S HAPPENING!” Stern tweeted in the early hours of June 5. “Flyby preparations for Ultima Thule begin shortly!”

In its next act, New Horizons will fly past the distant rock of Ultima Thule (also known as 2014 MU69) on New Year’s Day in 2019. Earlier observations suggest that Ultima Thule, no more than 30 kilometers long, could actually be two smaller objects orbiting each other (SN Online: 12/12/17). The team will know more when New Horizons’ first images after waking up arrive at Earth in August 2018.

Scientists think that Ultima Thule has existed near its current orbit 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth, at a temperature of –240° Celsius, for most of the solar system’s 4.6-billion-year history. “As such, MU69 will be the most primitive body ever studied by any spacecraft,” the team writes in the June Space Science Reviews.

New Horizons may have seen a glow at the solar system’s edge. The ultraviolet signal may mark a wall of hydrogen where the sun’s influence wanes. By Lisa Grossman, 7:00am, August 9, 2018.

Newly discovered beetle species named after astronaut, Leonardo Dicaprio

This video says about itself:

BREAKING! Leonardo DiCaprio awarded an impressive insect honor

1 May 2018

Meet Grouvellinus leonardodicaprioi.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Bornean riffe beetle now known as Grouvellinus andrekuipersi

There was already a tulip named after him and a planetoid, but since today astronaut André Kuipers is also the proud name giver of a new beetle species; the Grouvellinus andrekuipersi.

The beetle was discovered during an expedition in Borneo, organized by biologist Menno Schilthuizen. During the same expedition another beetle was found, named after the American actor Leonardo DiCaprio.


De Groot wrote a competition for an original name for the beetle and biology student Auke-Florian Hiemstra suggested naming the insect after André Kuipers because of his great commitment to the environment.

“As an astronaut, Kuipers saw the earth from space and experienced the “Overview Effect“. He suddenly saw how vulnerable the earth is and realized that we should be careful with our planet.”

Kuipers received the scientific publication in Zookeys from Hiemstra, in which the beetle is described with its new name.

Riffe beetle

The Grouvellinus andrekuipersi is a real riffe beetle. It was found in an area in Borneo with a lot of clean and fresh water. The beetles live on pieces of wood in streams and mainly eat the bacteria that grow on the wood. The Grouvellinus andrekuipersi probably only occurs in Borneo.

It is not the first time that animals and insects are named after celebrities. A [pistol] shrimp with bright pink scissors and a good sense of drumming was named after the British rock band Pink Floyd and a fly with heavy arms after Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Donald Trump was also named after an animal species. The moth Neopalpa donaldtrumpi has a yellow-orange ‘haircut’ that is very similar to that of the American president.