OSIRISRex and New Horizons Ultima Thule Set Records During Busy First Week of 2019

This year is starting off with a bang (astronomically speaking). In the first week we have OSIRIS_Rex in orbit around the asteroid Bennu and New Horizons Flies Past Ultima Thule

2611 Views | Published on 5th Jan, 2019

Hello Space Fans and welcome to the first 2019 edition of Space Fan News. In this episode, this year is starting with an astronomical bang because here it is only the fourth of January and already we’ve celebrated Osiris Rex orbiting the asteroid Bennu, the New Horizons flyby of the KBO called Ultima Thule and China has landed a rover on the far side of the moon! I’m already behind three episodes!

I realize I usually just do one story per episode in the new format of SFN, but because I need to catch up and there’s not a whole lot to say other than AWESOME, let me bring you up to speed on what’s happened so far this year.

Earlier this week, on New Years Eve, the Osiris-Rex mission announced that it had successfully achieved orbit around the asteroid known as Bennu. This asteroid is 70 million kilometers away and when the spacecraft achieved orbit it broke a space exploration record of the smallest object to ever be orbited.

If you think about it, it’s kinda hard to orbit small things, not a lot of gravity there. The gravity from Bennu is only five millionths as strong as Earth’s and the spacecraft is scheduled to orbit Bennu through mid-February.

Anyway, I’ve reported on Osiris-Rex before back in SFN 213 but to remind you: OSIRIS-Rex will circle Bennu about a mile from its center (because of the weak gravity), which is closer than any other spacecraft has come to its object of study. Even though the orbit is as stable as is possible around Bennu, keeping the space safe will require constant adjustments.

So right now OSIRIS-Rex will be mapping the surface of Bennu for a little over a year, looking for sites to take a sample. Yep, that’s right the spacecraft is going to get a piece of Bennu to take home. Once they’ve picked a good spot, the spacecraft will touch the surface for about five seconds. While it’s touching the asteroid, it will release a burst of nitrogen gas to stir up the surface, where some of it will fly into the collection sampler.

There’s enough nitrogen to do this three times in case of a mess up.

Then, in March 2021 OSIRIS-Rex returns home two and a half years later on Sept 24 2023 and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Next, now I don’t know if you were watching our live stream earlier this week, but Launchpad astronomy, tmro.tv and Deep Astronomy covered the New Horizons Flyby of the kuiper belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule. A small bit of rock located 43 astronomical units away. This flyby also set a space exploration record for the most distant flyby ever done by humanity.

As you can imagine, there was lots of trepidation about whether New Horizons would get anything, I mean it was going to scream by Ultima Thule going 32000 miles per hour at a height of only a few thousand kilometers. There was a real chance the cameras wouldn’t catch anything.

But by now I’m sure you know the punchline. New Horizons grabbed lots of images, here are some of the preliminary ones sent back on January 2nd. Looking like a red snowman or BB-8 from star wars, Ultima Thule is pretty funky looking. This rock has been circling the outer solar system pretty much the same way for about four billion years.

The object is basically just two smaller rocks gently mushed together (or so they think at this point), but with more images coming in over the next 20 months or so, the new data will hopefully help shed some light on this very distant remnant of our early solar system.

What’s amazing to me is that New Horizons only has a 15 watt transmitter on board, 15 watts! That explains the long data transmission times. Gigabytes of data were taken during the flyby and transmitting it at such a low power means they are sending this at 500 bits per second. It’s like trying to watch a movie while connected to your 1980’s acoustic modem.

Gonna take a while.

Anyway, that’s it for this episode Space Fans, I’ll get you caught up on the far side moon rover landing next week because I’m gonna need the weekend to figure out how to pronounce the mission name.

Space Fan News is made possible by OPT Telescopes, a world leader in telescopes and accessories for both amateur and professionals. And by Deep Astronomy Patreon Patrons, some of whom have been supporting us for years so THANK you so much. Please check out a poll I posted earlier today asking for input on what our weekly Monday live events should be so please take a minute to let me know.

Thanks to all of you for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up!

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