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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft opens new year at tiny, icy world past Pluto

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The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto opened the new year at an even more distant world.

Flight controllers said everything looked good for New Horizons’ flyby of the tiny, icy object at 12:33 a.m. ET Tuesday. Confirmation was not expected for hours, though, given the vast distance.

The mysterious, ancient target nicknamed Ultima Thule is 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth.

Scientists wanted New Horizons observing Ultima Thule during the encounter, not phoning home. So they had to wait until late morning before learning whether the spacecraft survived.

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Instead, hundreds of team members and their guests gathered nearby on campus for back-to-back countdowns.

The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons’ closest approach to Ultima Thule.

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following Tuesday’s official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won’t be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in colour, it is hoped.

Record-setting journey for spacecraft

“We set a record. Never before has a spacecraft explored anything so far away,” said the project’s lead scientist who led the countdown to the close encounter, Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute. “Think of it. We’re a billion miles farther than Pluto.”

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps on the moon in July 1969.

“Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the ‘giant leap’ of Apollo’s lunar missions,” Stern noted in an opinion piece in the New York Times.

‘Never before has a spacecraft explored anything so far away,’ New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said. (Joel Kowsky/NASA via Associated Press)

New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million US mission, was expected to hurtle to within 3,500 km of Ultima Thule, considerably closer than the Pluto encounter of 2015.

Its seven science instruments were to continue collecting data for four hours after the flyby. Then the spacecraft was to turn briefly toward Earth to transmit word of its success. It takes over six hours for radio signals to reach Earth from that far away.

Scientists believe there should be no rings or moons around Ultima Thule that might endanger New Horizons. Traveling at 50,700 kilometres per hour, the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle. It’s a tougher encounter than at Pluto because of the distance and the considerable unknowns, and because the spacecraft is older now.

“I can’t promise you success. We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft,” Stern said at a news conference Monday. “By tomorrow, we’ll know how we did. So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons.”

The risk added to the excitement.

Rock ‘n’ roll icon on hand

Queen guitarist Brian May, who also happens to be an astrophysicist, joined the team at Johns Hopkins for a midnight premiere of the song he wrote for the big event.

“We will never forget this moment,” said May who led the New Years countdown. “This is completely unknown territory.”

Queen lead guitarist Brian May, who is also an astrophysicist, discusses New Horizon’s flyby of Ultima Thule at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. (NASA/Bill Ingalls/Handout via Reuters)

Despite the government shutdown, several NASA scientists and other employees showed up at Johns Hopkins as private citizens, unwilling to miss history in the making.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth. It was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope and added to New Horizons’ itinerary.

Deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt, a frigid expanse beyond Neptune that is also known as the Twilight Zone, Ultima Thule is believed to date back 4.5 billion years to the formation of our solar system. As such, it is “probably the best time capsule we’ve ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it,” Stern said.

Just hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima’s shape. The original images have a pixel size of 10 km, not much smaller than Ultima’s estimated size of 30 km, so Ultima is only about three pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 32 km long, though there’s a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck. It is thought to be potato-shaped and dark-coloured  with a touch of red, possibly from being zapped by cosmic rays for eons.

An artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object as part of a potential extended mission after the Pluto flyby. ( Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The exact shape and composition won’t be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last almost two years.

“Who knows what we might find? … Anything’s possible out there in this very unknown region,” said John Spencer, a deputy project scientist from Southwest Research Institute. “We’ll find out soon enough.”

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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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