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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to reach icy world at edge of solar system New Year’s Day

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New Horizons, the spacecraft that provided the first glimpse of distant Pluto, is about to shed light on another world, a small icy body 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth.

On New Year’s day at 12:33 a.m. ET, the spacecraft will fly by 2014 MU69, given the informal name Ultima Thule, a 30-kilometre-wide object that is part of the Kuiper Belt. The region is a disk of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. 

It will be one of the most distant regions ever visited by a spacecraft.

“We’re on Ultima’s doorstep,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principle investigator from Southwest Research Institute, a Texas-based non-profit organization. “We’ve never seen any Kuiper Belt object up close. We don’t have any idea of what their geology is like, how evolved they are, how they were constructed, even what they’re made of.”

The spacecraft flew past Pluto, once considered our ninth planet and now considered a dwarf planet and part of the Kuiper Belt, in July 2015. Stern vociferously opposes the decision to reclassify Pluto.

Unravelling its secrets

When New Horizons flew past Pluto — a much larger world  than Ultima Thule at 2,380 km in diameter — it revealed things that planetary scientists could previously only theorize about.

Some of the findings included: Pluto has been geologically active in the recent past; it has a thicker atmosphere than expected (and it’s blue); and it is home to moving nitrogen glaciers and floating ice mountains.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. (NASA)

When New Horizons whips past Ultima Thule at 14 km/s on Jan. 1, it will be just 3,500 kilometres above its surface providing images in much higher resolution than even those taken of Pluto.

Stern is hoping for more surprises.

“We’re going to look for rings. We’re going to look for [moons]. We’re going to see if it has an atmosphere,” Stern said. “So it’s a lot about composition and geology and how the thing was built. How [did] these building blocks of planets get made 4 billion years ago. This is the most well-preserved sample of that era, of planet formation, anyone’s ever been to.”

The only other object has been Pluto but, Stern noted, it has undergone geological evolution so is not preserved at all.

“Ultima is our first and — for now — our only chance to really get at a time capsule of the formation era of the planets,” he said.

Challenges

Getting to a celestial body more than six billion kilometres away and just half the size of Fort McMurray is no easy task.

“Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, so it’s 10,000 times fainter,” Stern said. “This means that it’s much harder to navigate to, to track on and home in on, by a lot.”

After choosing Ultima Thule out of several potential candidates, the Hubble Space Telescope helped scientists track the object so they could fire the engines of New Horizons and change its trajectory. Now that it’s closer, they can track it with the onboard camera.

The image on the left is a composite of 48 images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) showing Ultima Thule amongst the stars. The image on the right shows a magnified image of Ultima Thule after all the background stars are subtracted from the image. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

But tracking it wasn’t the only challenge: because the spacecraft is so distant, there is less light to keep the instruments warm, so they are under more strain. As well, it’s much further away from Earth.

“Communications time has gone from four-and-a-half hours each way to six hours each way. That’s a 12-hour round trip,” Stern said. “We’re playing a chess game where every move takes 12 hours, by remote control with something [6.5 kilometres away] and no backup.”

Stern is excited at the prospect of finding another target to which they can send New Horizons following its visit to Ultima Thule.

“The mission has been an unbelievable experience and a resounding success,” Stern said.

The public is invited to take part in the mission by sending a message to Ultima Thule.

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More groups join in support of women in STEM program at Carleton

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OTTAWA — Major companies and government partners are lending their support to Carleton University’s newly established Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program.

The list of supporters includes Mississauga-based construction company EllisDon.

The latest to announce their support for the program also include BlackBerry QNX, CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), Ericsson, Nokia, Solace, Trend Micro, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CGI, Gastops, Leonardo DRS, Lockheed Martin Canada, Amdocs and Ross.

The program is officially set to launch this September.

It is being led by Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design with the goal of establishing meaningful partnerships in support of women in STEM.  

The program will host events for women students to build relationships with industry and government partners, create mentorship opportunities, as well as establish a special fund to support allies at Carleton in meeting equity, diversity and inclusion goals.

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VR tech to revolutionize commercial driver training

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Serious Labs seems to have found a way from tragedy to triumph? The Edmonton-based firm designs and manufactures virtual reality simulators to standardize training programs for operators of heavy equipment such as aerial lifts, cranes, forklifts, and commercial trucks. These simulators enable operators to acquire and practice operational skills for the job safety and efficiency in a risk-free virtual environment so they can work more safely and efficiently.

The 2018 Humboldt bus catastrophe sent shock waves across the industry. The tragedy highlighted the need for standardized commercial driver training and testing. It also contributed to the acceleration of the federal government implementing a Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) program for Class 1 & 2 drivers currently being adopted across Canada. MELT is a much more rigorous standard that promotes safety and in-depth practice for new drivers.

Enter Serious Labs. By proposing to harness the power of virtual reality (VR), Serious Labs has earned considerable funding to develop a VR commercial truck driving simulator.

The Government of Alberta has awarded $1 million, and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is contributing an additional $2 million for the simulator development. Commercial deployment is estimated to begin in 2024, with the simulator to be made available across Canada and the United States, and with the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) helping to provide simulator tests to certify that driver trainees have attained the appropriate standard. West Tech Report recently took the opportunity to chat with Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin, about the environmental and labour benefits of VR Driver Training, as well as the unique way that Colvin went from angel investor to CEO of the company.

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Next-Gen Tech Company Pops on New Cover Detection Test

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While the world comes out of the initial stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 will be continue to be a threat for some time to come. Companies, such as Zen Graphene, are working on ways to detect the virus and its variants and are on the forefronts of technology.

Nanotechnology firm ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (TSX-Venture:ZEN) (OTCPK:ZENYF), is working to develop technology to help detect the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The firm signed an exclusive agreement with McMaster University to be the global commercializing partner for a newly developed aptamer-based, SARS-CoV-2 rapid detection technology.

This patent-pending technology uses clinical samples from patients and was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The test is considered extremely accurate, scalable, saliva-based, affordable, and provides results in under 10 minutes.

Shares were trading up over 5% to $3.07 in early afternoon trade.

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