While millions of people are preparing for the end of the year party, an unmanned spacecraft more than 110 million kilometers from Earth will light its rockets to make history.
The probe Osiris-Rex from NASA It will descend to 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 ground of the asteroid for five seconds, aspirate a sample of earth and 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 They contain organic compounds and amino acids, basic elements for life on our planet. But when one of these bodies hits 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 which comprises New Horizons, Osiris-Rex Y 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 deflecting 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 may 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 traveling together almost touching or just 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, geologist of Colombian origin.
In the early days of 2019, meanwhile, China hopes to achieve a much closer third milestone: land for the first time on the hidden side of the Moon. The non-visible face of our satellite is not dark, but has day and night periods that last about 14 Earth days. The probe Chang'e-4 It was launched on December 12 and began to orbit the Moon two days later. The Chinese lander and mobile exploration vehicle need light for their solar panels, so it is expected that their landing will occur at the next sunrise in the first days of 2019.
The landing is planned in the Von Kármán crater, 186 kilometers in diameter, which in turn is in the Aitken basin, which, with a diameter of more than 2,500 kilometers, is one of the largest impact craters in the solar system. The mission includes the communication satellite Queqiao for the need to triangulate communications with the Earth, another reason why a landing in this area has never been attempted before. The mission includes several scientific instruments, among them a sealed box developed by students that contains the possible first inhabitants of the Moon: silkworms.
Planetary geologist Adriana Ocampo has been at NASA for more than three decades but has never seen herself in a situation like these days. The closure of the US Government forced by Donald Trump at the expense of the construction of the wall with Mexico means that 95% of the employees of the space agency in the country can not go to work. Only those fundamental posts are maintained, such as those that guarantee the safety of the astronauts of the International Space Station. For all this probably Ocampo, who has been working in these missions for years, is not on duty when these missions perform the two desired maneuvers. Government closure will not thwart the entry into orbit of Osiris-Rex nor the overflight of Ultima because the maneuvers have been previously programmed and prepared specifically in anticipation that there could be an administrative closure, explains Ocampo. The parliamentary conflict can mean an information blackout at NASA, since neither its television nor its web will be updated. Anyway the flight over Ultima Thule can be followed live because the center of operations is not at NASA, but at Johns Hopkins University, whose website offers special programming from today. Ocampo probably has a new opportunity to be of service in a historical moment. New Horizons It carries a nuclear engine and its useful life will be at least 40 years or more, in which it is expected that it can visit at least one more body of the Kuiper belt.