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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Three space missions will make history in the coming days

At the beginning of 2019 humanity will observe the farthest world that has been visited in the Solar System, orbit an asteroid and land on the hidden side of the Moon
While millions of people are preparing for the New Year's Eve party, an unmanned spacecraft more than 110 million kilometers from Earth will fire its rockets to make history.
The NASA Osiris-Rex probe will   descend into the asteroid Bennu and begin to orbit it just one and a half kilometers from the surface.
Never before had such a maneuver been attempted, which depends on the microgravity force exerted by the rock, barely 500 meters in diameter.
The insertion in orbit will be one of the first milestones for this mission, whose final objective is to touch the asteroid floor for five seconds, and to aspirate a sample of earth to send it back to Earth in the year 2023.
Bennu belongs to the oldest type of asteroids in the Solar System . It is thought that it has remained almost intact since it was formed 4 billion years ago .
These bodies contain organic compounds and amino acids, basic elements for life on our planet. But when one of these bodies impacts the Earth, much of its content burns in the atmosphere.
"This will be the first time we can analyze a pristine material that we have never had access to," says Javier Licandro , one of the four researchers from the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands who collaborate with the mission of the US space agency.
His team analyzes the images taken by the three cameras on board the probe and determines the composition of the asteroid, a task that will help to fix the extraction point of the sample.
On January 1, 2019, more than 6,000 million kilometers, another US probe - New Horizons - will show for the first time Ultima Thule, the farthest body of the Solar System that has been visited. This world is beyond Pluto, inside the Kuiper belt, a disk that can contain thousands of asteroids and billions of comets that extend to the ends of the Solar System.
Ultima was discovered in 2014 and observed from Earth thanks to two astronomical expeditions to Patagonia Argentina and Senegal that allowed estimating its diameter: about 30 kilometers. "Ultima Thule means: from now on the unknown begins" in Latin, explains Adriana Ocampo, one of the heads of the program New Frontiers of NASA that includes  New Horizons ,  Osiris-Rex  and  Juno  that explores Jupiter. Ultima "is the most primitive object that has ever been flown over and can clarify the role that Kuiper belt objects continue to play by diverting comets from their trajectories and bringing them closer to the core of the solar system, a process that could sow life on our planet due to impacts of these bodies, "explains Ocampo.
The encounter with Ultima Thule will be fleeting but productive. The ship will go about 3,500 kilometers from the surface of 2014 MU69, the official name of this body, three times closer than Pluto flew. There he discovered for the first time the geography of the dwarf planet and supported the idea that under a thick layer of ice there can be a liquid ocean with as much salt water as there is on Earth. For 72 hours, New Horizons cameras   will take high resolution images of Ultima Thule, look for possible moons and rings, and determine if it is composed of two objects that travel together almost touching or only one.
NASA hopes to publish the first images of the body on January 2 and in that first week of the year high-resolution images will arrive. "This mission is something epic, historical," says Ocampo, a geologist of Colombian origin.

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