Dwarf planet Ultima Thule first photos

This 2 January 2018 video from the USA says about itself:

New Horizons probe sends back first images of Ultima Thule

NASA says it will release new images Wednesday of Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever explored by humans, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. Scientists believe the icy world, more than a billion miles beyond Pluto, will reveal clues about the origins of the solar system. Mark Strassmann reports.

New Horizons shows Ultima Thule looks like a snowman, or maybe BB-8. The Kuiper Belt object is probably two rocks stuck together. By Lisa Grossman, 5:42pm, January 2, 2019.

See also here.

The latest picture of Ultima Thule reveals a remarkably smooth face. The object’s lack of craters suggests the Kuiper Belt isn’t filled with lots of space hazards. By Lisa Grossman, 11:17am, January 29, 2019.

The moon, science and militarisation

This video from the USa says about itself:

Trump Presents ‘Space Force: Episode Dumb’

Today Donald Trump is calling for a space military. Tomorrow he’ll be calling for a space military parade.

By Henry Allan and Bryan Dyne in the USA:

Moon targeted for further exploration, orbiting space stations and militarization

27 December 2018

Earlier this year, NASA announced plans to build a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, which is slated to be humanity’s tenth space station and the first that will orbit the Moon. The Gateway is projected to be operational by the mid-2020s, with the first initial component of the outpost ready to launch in 2022. Congress has already provided $504 million for the initial planning and design of the space station and the project, if it goes forward, is estimated to cost $3 billion a year.

NASA is promoting the Gateway as a lunar-orbiting station with scientific instruments attached externally as well as internally in order to conduct scientific experiments, control lunar rovers, or even act as a jumping off point for further ventures into space, including possible launches towards deep space.

“I envision different partners, both international and commercial, contributing to the gateway and using it in a variety of ways with a system that can move to different orbits to enable a variety of missions”, said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington, earlier this year. “The gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to the surface of the moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the solar system.”

Whatever its potential achievements, however, the development of the Gateway cannot be seen outside the context of the plan to create a “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the US military and the growing militarization of space in general.

When US President Donald Trump announced his intent to form the “Space Force” in June, he made it clear that the move was part of the war plans directed against Russia and China. “Our destiny beyond the Earth is not only a matter of national identity but a matter of national security”, Trump declared, adding that the United States should not have “China and Russia and other countries leading us.” He further emphasized, “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space; we must have American dominance in space.”

House Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin, a Texas Republican, echoed the national-chauvinist line of Trump, declaring, “Under the president’s leadership, we are now on the verge of a new generation of American greatness and leadership in space—leading us to once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”

The Gateway would inevitably be a part of these efforts. A US space station orbiting the Moon immediately raises the possibility of policing of the space between Earth and the Moon, whether by manned or unmanned vehicles. These in turn would need a broader support network of spy satellites and other infrastructure necessary for such an undertaking, including space-based weapons.

It would no doubt also be used as an attempt to counter the influence of China, which is currently planning on building its own base on the surface of the Moon. It is not far-fetched to consider a “freedom of navigation” provocation, like those conducted repeatedly by the US military in the South China Sea, carried out against Chinese vessels in space. The Gateway might also be used as the pretext for attacking a craft that simply went too close to the station, violating its “territorial waters”, so to speak. Any of these could be used to start a war.

Such moves in the direction of new wars of aggression came into sharp focus when Trump announced the unilateral US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia, which prohibited Washington and Moscow from developing short- and medium-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The withdrawal will set the stage for a further development of the US nuclear arsenal. It also poses the possibility of placing strategic weapons in space, perhaps even as part of the proposed space station.

The Gateway has also drawn criticism from scientists and astronauts who oppose the project as a drain on the already limited resources for space exploration. While the total cost of the Gateway is not fully worked out, it is already known that it will take twenty launches from currently available rockets to get the planned modules for the station to the Moon. This would eliminate twenty launches that could otherwise be dedicated to different unmanned interplanetary missions. While this could be reduced to as little as four if the Gateway was built with either NASA’s Space Launch System or SpaceX’s Super Heavy Starship, [both] of those rocket designs have yet to be built.

Opponents of the Gateway have also pointed out that, unlike the currently operational International Space Station (ISS), because there are no agreements to share any benefits that might be gained from the Gateway, there are no cost-sharing agreements for the station’s operation. If US unilateralism on trade is an example of what will be demanded in space, then other nations will probably stick to the ISS or even begin developing their own, similar projects, with the same inherent risks—the danger of disaster in space and war on Earth.

It is also not clear that the Gateway would actually be a “stepping stone” to missions elsewhere in the Solar System. To arrive at the station, a spacecraft would have to enter orbit around the Moon, which costs fuel. As of now, a trip to the surface of the Moon that first stopped at the Gateway would require thirty percent more fuel. A trip to an asteroid, Mars or elsewhere faces similar problems.

Trans-Pluto dwarf planet Ultima Thule, first photos

This 21 June 2019 video is called What Did New Horizons See During Its Journey To Pluto And Beyond? 2006-2019.

A 30 August 2018 video used to say 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.

Puerto Rico’s forests and Hurricane Maria

This NASA video says about itself:

NASA Surveys Hurricane Damage to Puerto Rico’s Forests

11 July 2018

From NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center in the USA:

NASA surveys hurricane damage to Puerto Rico’s forests

July 11, 2018

On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria barreled across Puerto Rico with winds of up to 155 miles per hour and battering rain that flooded towns, knocked out communications networks and destroyed the power grid. In the rugged central mountains and the lush northeast, Maria unleashed its fury as fierce winds completely defoliated the tropical forests and broke and uprooted trees. Heavy rainfall triggered thousands of landslides that mowed over swaths of steep mountainsides.

In April a team of NASA scientists traveled to Puerto Rico with airborne instrumentation to survey damages from Hurricane Maria to the island’s forests.

“From the air, the scope of the hurricane’s damages was startling”, said NASA Earth scientist Bruce Cook, who led the campaign. “The dense, interlocking canopies that blanketed the island before the storm were reduced to a tangle of downed trees and isolated survivors, stripped of their branches.”

NASA’s Earth-observing satellites monitor the world’s forests to detect seasonal changes in vegetation cover or abrupt forest losses from deforestation, but at spatial and time scales that are too coarse to see changes. To get a more detailed look, NASA flew an airborne instrument called Goddard’s Lidar, Hyperspectral and Thermal Imager, or G-LiHT. From the belly of a small aircraft flying one thousand feet above the trees, G-LiHT collected multiple measurements of forests across the island, including high-resolution photographs, surface temperatures and the heights and structure of the vegetation.

The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and NASA provided funding for the airborne campaign.

The team flew many of the same tracks with G-LiHT as it had in the spring of 2017, months before Hurricane Maria made landfall, as part of a study of how tropical forests regrow on abandoned agricultural land. The before-and-after comparison shows forests across the island still reeling from the hurricane’s impact.

Using lidar, a ranging system that fires 600,000 laser pulses per second, the team measured changes in the height and structure of the Puerto Rican forests. The damage is palpable. Forests near the city of Arecibo on the northern side of the island grow on limestone hills with little soil to stabilize trees. As a result, the hurricane snapped or uprooted 60 percent of the trees there. In the northeast, on the slopes of El Yunque National Forest, the hurricane trimmed the forests, reducing their average height by one-third.

Data from G-LiHT is not only being used to capture the condition of the island’s forests; it is an important research tool for scientists who are tracking how the forests are changing as they recover from such a major event.

“[Hurricane] Maria pressed the reset button on many of the different processes that develop forests over time”, said Doug Morton, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and G-LiHT co-investigator. “Now we’re watching a lot of those processes in fast-forward speeds as large areas of the island are recovering, with surviving trees and new seedlings basking in full sunlight.”

Among the areas that the team flew over extensively was El Yunque National Forest, which Hurricane Maria struck at full force. The U.S. Forest Service manages El Yunque, a tropical rainforest, as well as its designated research plots, which were established in the late 1930s. University and government scientists perform all manner of research, including measuring individual trees to track their growth, counting flowers and seeds to monitor reproduction, and analyzing soil samples to track the nutrients needed for plant growth.

One important assessment of a tree’s health is its crown, which comprises the overall shape of a treetop, with its branches, stems and leaves. Hurricane winds can heavily damage tree crowns and drastically reduce the number of leaves for creating energy through photosynthesis.

“Just seven months after the storm, surviving trees are flushing new leaves and regrowing branches in order to regain their ability to harvest sunlight through photosynthesis”, Morton said, while also noting that the survival of damaged trees in the years ahead is an open question.

While it’s difficult to assess tree crowns in detail from the ground, from the air G-LiHT’s lidar instrument can derive the shape and structure of all of the trees in its flight path. The airborne campaign over Puerto Rico was extensive enough to provide information on the structure and composition of the overall forest canopy, opening up a range of research possibilities.

“Severe storms like Maria will favor some species and destroy others”, said Maria Uriarte, an ecologist at Columbia University who has studied El Yunque National Forest for 15 years and is working with the NASA team to validate flight data with ground observations. “Plot level studies tell us how this plays out in a small area but the damage at any particular place depends on proximity to the storm’s track, topography, soils and the characteristics of each forest patch. This makes it hard to generalize to other forests in the island.”

But with G-LiHT data scientists can study the storm impacts over a much larger area, Uriarte continued. “What’s really exciting is that we can ask a completely different set of questions,” she said. “Why does one area have more damage than others? What species are being affected the most across the island?”

Understanding the state of the forest canopy also has far-reaching implications for the rest of the ecosystem, as tree cover is critical to the survival of many species. For example, birds such as the native Iguaca parrot use the canopy to hide from predator hawks. The canopy also creates a cooler, humid environment that is conducive to the growth of tree seedlings and lizards and frogs that inhabit the forest floor. Streams that are cooled by the dense shade also make them habitable for a wide diversity of other organisms.

Yet by that same token, other plants and animals that were once at a disadvantage are now benefiting from changes brought about by the loss of canopy.

“Some lizards live in the canopy, where they thrive in drier, more sunlit conditions”, said herpetologist Neftali Ríos-López, an associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Humacao Campus. “Because of the hurricane those drier conditions that were once exclusive to the canopy are now extended down to the forest floor. As a result, those animals are better adapted to those conditions and have started displacing and substituting animals that are adapted to the once cooler conditions.”

“Who are the winners and losers in this new environment? That’s an important question in all of this”, said NASA’s Doug Morton. During the airborne campaign, he spent several days in the research plots of El Yunque taking three-dimensional images of the forest floor to complement the data from G-LiHT. He said it’s clear that the palms, which weathered the hurricane winds better than other broad-leafed trees, are among the current beneficiaries of the now sun-drenched forest. And that’s not a bad thing.

“Palm trees are going to form a major component of the canopy of this forest for the next decade or more, and in some ways they’ll help to facilitate the recovery of the rest of this forest”, Morton said. “Palms provide a little bit of shade and protection for the flora and fauna that are recolonizing the area. That’s encouraging.”

The implications of this research extend beyond the forest ecosystem, both in time and space, said Grizelle Gonzalez, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and project lead for the research plots in El Yunque. As an example, she pointed out that the hurricane caused the mountain streams to flood and fill with sediment that ultimately flowed into the ocean. Sediment can negatively impact the quality of the drinking water as well as the coral communities that fisheries depend on for both subsistence and commerce.

“It’s beautiful to see that so many federal agencies came together to collaborate on this important work because forests play a key role in everything from biodiversity and the economy to public health”, Gonzalez said.

G-LiHT data also has global implications. In July, the team heads to Alaska to continue surveying the vast forestland in the state’s interior to better understand the impacts of accelerated Arctic warming on boreal forests, which, in turn, play a key role in cooling Earth’s climate by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. “G-LiHT allows us to collect research data at the scale of individual trees across broad landscapes,” Morton said. “Forests from Alaska to Puerto Rico are constantly changing in response to climate warming and disturbances such as fire and hurricanes.”

Hurricane Maria gave ecologists rare chance to study how tropical dry forests recover: here.

Scientist Brad Lister returned to Puerto Rican rainforest after 35 years to find 98 percent of ground insects had vanished. “We are essentially destroying the very life support systems that allow us to sustain our existence on the planet,” he said.

Global warming will increase the severity of hurricanes: here.

TRUMP PRAISES MARIA RESPONSE DESPITE HUGE DEATH TOLL Trump praised his administration for its controversial response to Hurricane Maria, calling it “an incredible unsung success.” Puerto Rican authorities recently increased the death toll linked to the storm from 64 to 2,975. [HuffPost]

Spacecraft New Horizons in Kuiper Belt

This 27 December 2018 video is called Spacecraft to go beyond Pluto on New Year’s Day cosmic rock flyby.

A 4 June 2018 Sky News video used to say 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.

Milky Way astronomical video

This video says about itself:

12 January 2018

This 360-degree video gives a simulated view of the environment at the middle of the Milky Way, surrounding the galaxy’s supermassive black hole. Stars (white) orbit the black hole, emitting blobs of gas (red). Read more here.

Credit: C. Russell et al./Pontifical Catholic Univ. of Chile, CXC/NASA