Dec 31, 2018

NASA is about to make space exploration history

The New Horizons spacecraft sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima's shape. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is on track to make space exploration history just 33 minutes into 2019 Eastern time, scientists said Monday. That's when it's expected to pass just 2,200 miles away from a tiny object known as Ultima Thule, located about 4 billion miles from Earth in a region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.

Why it matters: The flyby may give scientists new and vital insights into how the solar system and planets like Earth first formed. This is the first time scientists have ever closely studied a Kuiper Belt object, and scientists said Monday the flyby is proceeding according to plan but without a guarantee of success.

  • “We are straining at the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we’ll know how well we did,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons' principal investigator, at a press conference.

What to watch: Scientists will have to wait until New Year's Day to learn whether their efforts were successful, as the spacecraft is on autopilot, using commands sent hours ago due to the distance.

Researchers say they know a very limited amount about Ultima Thule, whose nickname means "beyond the known world." That lack of advance knowledge makes it a particularly tantalizing target.

“We hardly know anything about it,” said Stern. “That’s all going to change, and it’s going to change this week.”

The backstory: Scientists believe Ultima Thule has been frozen in time since the solar system first formed about 4.6 billion years ago.

  • The Kuiper Belt, where Ultima Thule is located, is a region of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune that are thought to be leftovers from the solar system's early days.
  • There are thought to be hundreds of thousands of objects like Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt, and the spacecraft will attempt to gather data on others to learn more about them, and how Ultima Thule might differ from them.

"It's a very special region that we're very excited to explore," said John Spencer, a deputy project scientist with the Southwest Research Institute.

The details: The flyby is requiring scientists to stretch the capabilities of the New Horizons spacecraft, which gathered unprecedented data on Pluto in 2015 after launching in 2006. Ultima Thule, for example, is about 80 times smaller than Pluto.

  • New Horizons is traveling at about 32,000 miles per hour.
  • It has been programmed to pass just 2,200 miles away from Ultima Thule, taking pictures and gathering data with its 7 different instruments on board.
"We only get one shot at it. Nothing like it has ever been done before."
— Alan Stern, Principal Investigator with New Horizons

We're likely to see the first photo on New Year's Day. More images and data from the spacecraft will flow back to Earth during the course of the week and beyond, given the roughly six hours required to transmit data one way at 1,000 bits per second across 4 billion miles, Stern said.

The knowns: Scientists know the general size of Ultima Thule, which is on the order of about 15 to 20 miles in diameter, and would be able to fit between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. They also think it's reddish in color.

The unknowns: Researchers are particularly interested in finding out more about the object's geological makeup, how it compares with other Kuiper Belt objects, whether it's releasing any gases and if it has small satellites nearby.

How to watch: To follow along with the mission, watch a livestream from Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, and monitor its social media accounts. Events will also stream online via NASA.

Editor's note: This piece has been corrected to show that the flyby distance between New Horizons and Ultima Thule will be close to 2,200 miles (not 22,000 miles).

Go deeper

World coronavirus updates: Cases to hit 1 million within days, WHO warns

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

Novel coronavirus infections are nearing the 1 million mark after a "near exponential growth" that's reached "almost every country," World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.

The big picture: COVID-19 cases surged past 937,000 and the global death toll exceeded 47,000 by early Thursday, per Johns Hopkins data. Italy has reported more than 13,000 deaths.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 1 hour ago - Health

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 1:30 a.m. ET: 937,567 — Total deaths: 47,256 — Total recoveries: 194,311Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 1:30 a.m. ET: 216,721 — Total deaths: 5,138 — Total recoveries: 8,672Map.
  3. Business updates: Small businesses are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus job crisis.
  4. World updates: Spain’s confirmed cases surpassed 100,000, and the nation saw its biggest daily death toll so far. More than 500 people were reported dead within the last 24 hours in the U.K., per Johns Hopkins.
  5. State updates: Florida and Pennsylvania are the latest states to issue stay-at-home orders — Michigan has more than 9,000 confirmed cases, an increase of 1,200 and 78 new deaths in 24 hours.
  6. Stock market updates: Stocks closed more than 4% lower on Wednesday, continuing a volatile stretch for the stock market amid the coronavirus outbreak.
  7. 1 future thing: Shifts to telemedicine, at-home diagnostics, and drone delivery are all likely lasting consequences from this pandemic.
  8. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  9. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

U.S. coronavirus updates: Death toll tops 5,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The novel coronavirus has now killed more than 5,100 people in the United States, as more state governors issued stay-at-home orders Wednesday to curb the spread. Over 216,000 people are now infected and more than 8,500 others have recovered.

The state of play: Trump administration officials are anonymously sounding the alarm that America's emergency stockpile of personal protective equipment is running dangerously low, the Washington Post reports.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 3 hours ago - Health