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NASA releases first close-up images of distant object Ultima Thule

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ultima thule new horizons 2014 mu69 kuiper belt nasa jhuapl swri steve gribbenAn illustration of NASA’s New Horizons probe visiting 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

  • Scientists flew the New Horizons probe past a space rock called 2014 MU69 on New Year’s Day.
  • MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule) is 4 billion miles from Earth and the most distant object humanity has ever explored.
  • NASA’s spacecraft recorded hundreds of photos of MU69, and researchers just unveiled the first images of the object.
  • The pictures show MU69 is reddish in color and shaped like a snowman.
  • Getting all of the flyby data could take about two years, but the resulting information may reveal how planets formed in our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago.

On New Year’s Day, scientists flew NASA’s nuclear-powered New Horizons probe past a mysterious, mountain-sized object.

The space rock is known formally as (486958) 2014 MU69, though it’s more commonly referred to as “Ultima Thule” (a nickname that has garnered some controversy — see the editor’s note below). It’s located more than 4 billion miles from Earth and 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, making MU69 the farthest object humanity has ever explored up close.

New Horizons recorded hundreds of photos in a highly choreographed flyby at 32,200 miles per hour; it came within about 2,200 miles of MU69. On Wednesday, researchers giddily revealed the first photographic spoils of their unprecedented mission.

“It’s a snowman,” Alan Stern, who leads the New Horizons mission, said of the object’s shape during a press conference on Wednesday.

Stern explained that MU69 appears to be what’s technically called a contact binary, or “two completely separate objects now joined together.”

Ultima thule snowmanA humorous comparison by New Horizons scientists shows what they think MU69 looks like.NASA

Jeff Moore, a planetary geologist and co-investigator on the New Horizons mission, said during the briefing that the two lobes of MU69 likely smooshed together at few miles per hour, or “the speed at which you might park your car.”

“If you had a collision with another car at those speeds, you might not even fill out the insurance forms,” he added.

The scientists also referred to MU69 as a bi-lobate (or two-lobed) comet that has never journeyed near the sun. They are currently called the larger lobe “Ultima,” which is nearly 12 miles in diameter, and the smaller lobe “Thule,” which is about 8.7 miles across.

Cathy Olkin, a planetary scientist and deputy project scientist on the New Horizons mission, said MU69’s surprisingly round lobes and final shape is an exciting development in explaining how planets form.

“This is exactly what need to move the modeling work on planetary formation forward, because we’re seeing evidence — right here — of accreting objects, and then having them combine,” she said during the press conference.

ultima thuleAn illustration showing how MU69 might have formed at the dawn of the solar system.NASA

Since MU69 is so distant, cold, and relatively unchanged, Moore said it’s likely “the most primitive object that has yet been seen by any spacecraft.”

“What we think we’re looking at is the end product of a process which probably took place in only a few hundred thousand or few million years — the very beginning of the formation of the solar system,” he added.

No one knew what MU69 looked like until this week. Fuzzy images captured before the flyby led some scientists to guess it was an elongated object, shaped like a bowling pin or peanut, or two objects caught in tight orbit with each other.

The first low-resolution pictures beamed to Earth from New Horizons show MU69 is one object formed from two separate ones and has reddish coloring. Scientists compared the hue with that of Pluto’s moon, Charon.

Ultima Thule CharonA comparison of Pluto’s moon, Charon, and 2014 MU69.NASA

“We can definitely say Ultima Thule is red,” Carly Howett, a co-investigator of the New Horizons mission, said during the briefing.

Howett noted the color likely comes from billions of years’ worth of radiation that has pummeled organic compounds on MU69’s surface and converted them into complex chemicals called tholins (which are red-hued).

new horizons 2014 mu69 ultima thule first close up red color jhuapl nasa swriA low-resolution color image of MU69 (left), a high-resolution black-and-white image (center), and a merged version to show the object’s color (right).NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Stern said the team would, using data it already has, begin writing its first scientific paper next week.

“This is going to revolutionize our knowledge of planetary science,” Stern said.

An unprecedented bonus mission beyond Pluto

The mission to fly past MU69 was as surprising as it was ambitious.

When NASA launched New Horizons toward Pluto in 2006, nobody knew MU69 existed. There wasn’t even a reliable way to detect the object until astronauts plugged an upgraded camera into the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.

kuiper belt objects kbos pluto new horizons flight path ultima thule 2014 mu69 alex parker jhuapl swriAn illustration of the Kuiper Belt with New Horizons’ flight path, Pluto, and Ultima Thule (or 2014 MU69).NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

New Horizons achieved the first-ever visit to Pluto in July 2015. Once the probe finished that main mission, it coasted farther into a zone called the Kuiper Belt.

In this cold and icy region, sunlight is about as weak as the light from a full moon on Earth. Frozen leftovers of the solar system’s formation, called Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), lurk in vast numbers.

Pluto is one of them, but MU69 is the most pristine yet encountered. It might have been a comet with a brilliant tail, had it been tossed toward the sun, but instead it has stayed in its distant, freezing-cold orbit for billions of years.

“Any time we see comets, we have to remember that they’re post-toasties; they’ve been fired, crackled, and crunched by the sun. They’re badly damaged examples of former Kuiper Belt objects,” Moore said. “Being able to go out and see a pristine Kuiper Belt object tells us now that, indeed, contact binaries really do form — and maybe when we see comets, we’re looking at smaller versions of very badly damaged contact binaries.”

The unprecedented data acquired by New Horizons will likely reveal new clues about how the solar system evolved to form planets like Earth.

“Ultima is the first thing we’ve been to that is not big enough to have a geological engine like a planet, and also something that’s never been warmed greatly by the sun,” Stern previously told Business Insider. “It’s like a time capsule from 4.5 billion years ago. That’s what makes it so special.”

He compared the flyby to an archaeological dig in Egypt.

“It’s like the first time someone opened up the pharaoh’s tomb and went inside, and you see what the culture was like 1,000 years ago,” he said. “Except this is exploring the dawn of the solar system.”

asteroids asteroid field star nasa jpl 717846main_pia16610_fullAn artist’s rendering of an asteroid swarm.NASA/JPL-Caltech

Another analogy: Stern said he thinks of MU69 as a “planetary embryo” since it’s a building block of larger planets that never became one.

“In that sense, it’s like a paleontologist finding the fossilized embryo of a dinosaur,” Stern said. “It has a very special value.”

The long wait for more unprecedented data

new horizons 2014 mu69 ultima thule first close up images jhuapl nasa swriA photo of 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, taken by NASA’s New Horizons probe just 30 minutes before its closest approach on January 1, 2019. At left is a raw spacecraft image, and at right is a sharpened version.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

As with New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto several years ago, researchers on the mission must now play a waiting game for more images and scientific data.

According to Stern, the first pictures New Horizons captured during the flyby each took two hours to transmit. Each bit of data, moving at the speed of light as radio waves, then took about six hours to reach antennas on Earth.

Although the first images are now public, they are low-resolution versions. It will take much longer to receive the most detailed, full-resolution images because of physical limitations of the New Horizons spacecraft and its location. In fact, it may take 20 months to download all of the probe’s data.

Part of the reason it will take so long is because the output of the spacecraft’s radio antenna is now about 15 watts — or one-quarter of a standard light bulb’s power — and it’s broadcasting from 4 billion miles away.

Most immediately, New Horizons will also have to wait until January 10 before beaming back more data because the sun will come between it and Earth, blocking the spacecraft’s feeble transmissions.

Stern added during a press conference on Thursday that the researchers would be analyzing the data they have in the meantime. New Horizons team members expect to see the highest-resolution color photos in February.

“We are guardedly optimistic that those highest-res images will cover a massive amount of the surface,” Stern said on Thursday. “Stay tuned for February.”

One thing researchers have learned so far is that MU69 rotates on its axis about once every 15 hours.

On Thursday, the team released the above animation of two images taken by New Horizons about eight minutes apart, revealing some of MU69’s shape. The team also released a red-blue stereo image that shows it in 3D.

“What is striking home with me is that we can build a spacecraft on Earth, and we send it out billions of miles away from Earth, and it sends us back all this wonderful data that we get to look at and learn more about our world, our solar system,” Alice Bowman, the New Horizons mission operations manager, said during a press conference on Tuesday.

‘10,000 times harder than reaching Pluto’

This flyby was dramatically more difficult to pull off than New Horizons’ Pluto visit, Stern said.

“Rendezvousing with something the size of a large, filthy mountain covered in dirt, a billion miles away from Pluto, and honing in on it is about 10,000 times harder than reaching Pluto,” Stern previously told Business Insider. “That’s because it’s about 10,000 times smaller. The achievement of getting to it is unbelievable.”

pluto dwarf planet charon moon new horizons nasa jhuapl swriAn image composite of Pluto (right) and its moon, Charon, (left).NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pinpointing exactly where MU69 would be in space when New Horizons could fly near it required a “two and a half week odyssey” of telescopic observations around the world, mission scientist Simon Porter said on Twitter.

To see MU69 block the light of a distant star — a way to confirm the space rock’s precise orbit — the researchers had to fly an airplane-mounted telescope called SOFIA and deploy dozens of telescopes in Argentina.

The New Horizons team is already plotting and scheming to make a flyby of an even more distant object.

“New Horizons is a very healthy spacecraft. In fact, all of the systems on board are redundant, and we’re not using any of the backup systems because we haven’t had any systems failures in 13 years of flight,” Stern told Business Insider during Wednesday’s press conference.

new horizons rtgThe New Horizons spacecraft before its launch in 2006.NASA

The probe’s power supply — a system that converts the heat emitted by decaying plutonium-238 into electricity — has about 15 to 20 years of life left in it. Stern said this could power all of the spacecraft’s electronics out to a distance of about 10 billion miles, or about 2.5 times its current distance.

Where the team might go next is still up in the air.

“I can’t give you the answer today because we don’t know,” Stern said. “We’ve been very careful, during this period of three years, where we were planning every detail of this flyby, to stay focused on that — and not get distracted by the next shiny thing, if you know what I mean.”

He added that by the summer of 2020, the team will make a formal pitch to NASA to look for another object to fly past, perhaps at the very edge of the Kuiper Belt (and a decade from now).

“There’s plenty of time to go find other targets — if we’re in the position of having a still-healthy spacecraft and an accepted proposal,” Stern said.

Editor’s note: After a public campaign, the New Horizons team selected Ultima Thule as a nickname for (486958) 2014 MU69. However, we’ve de-emphasized it here because the Nazi party used the word “Thule” as a tenet of its ideology.

This story has been updated. It was originally published at 2:40 p.m. ET on January 2, 2019.

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The 3 Best Canadian Tech Stocks I Would Buy With $3,000 for 2021

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The majority of the Canadian tech stocks went through the roof in 2020 and delivered outsized returns. However, tech stocks witnessed sharp selling in the past 10 days, reflecting valuation concerns and expected normalization in demand. 

As these high-growth tech stocks shed some of their gains, I believe it’s time to accumulate them at current price levels to outperform the broader markets by a significant margin in 2021. Let’s dive into three tech stocks that have witnessed a pullback and are looking attractive bets. 

Lightspeed POS

Lightspeed POS (TSX:LSPD)(NYSE:LSPD) stock witnessed strong selling and is down about 33% in the last 10 days. I believe the selloff in Lightspeed presents an excellent opportunity for investors to invest in a high-growth and fundamentally strong company. 

Lightspeed witnessed an acceleration in demand for its digital products and services amid the pandemic. However, with the easing of lockdown measures and economic reopening, the demand for its products and services could normalize. Further, it faces tough year-over-year comparisons. 

Despite the normalization in demand, I believe the ongoing shift toward the omnichannel payment platform could continue to drive Lightspeed’s revenues and customer base. Besides, its accretive acquisitions, growing scale, and geographic expansion are likely to accelerate its growth and support the uptrend in its stock. Lightspeed stock is also expected to benefit from its growing average revenue per user, innovation, and up-selling initiatives.     

Shopify 

Like Lightspeed, Shopify (TSX:SHOP)(NYSE:SHOP) stock has also witnessed increased selling and has corrected by about 22% in the past 10 days. Notably, during the most recent quarter, Shopify said that it expects the vaccination and reopening of the economy to drive some of the consumer spending back to offline retail and services. Further, Shopify expects the pace of shift toward the e-commerce platform to return to the normal levels in 2021, which accelerated in 2020.

Despite the normalization in the pace of growth, a strong secular shift towards online commerce could continue to bring ample growth opportunities for Shopify, and the recent correction in its stock can be seen as a good buying opportunity. 

Shopify’s initiatives to ramp up its fulfillment network, international expansion and growing adoption of its payment platform are likely to drive strong growth in revenues and GMVs. Moreover, its strong new sales and marketing channels bode well for future growth. I remain upbeat on Shopify’s growth prospects and expect the company to continue to multiply investors’ wealth with each passing year. 

Docebo 

Docebo (TSX:DCBO)(NASDAQ:DCBO) stock is down about 21% in the last 10 days despite sustained momentum in its base business. The enterprise learning platform provider’s key performance metrics remain strong, implying that investors should capitalize on its low stock price and start accumulating its stock at the current levels. 

Docebo’s annual recurring revenue or ARR (a measure of future revenues) continues to grow at a brisk pace. Its ARR is expected to mark 55-57% growth in Q4. Meanwhile, its top line could increase by 48-52% during the same period. The company’s average contract value is growing at a healthy rate and is likely to increase by 22-24% during Q4. 

With the continued expansion of its customer base, geographical expansion, innovation, and opportunistic acquisitions, Docebo could deliver strong returns in 2021 and beyond.

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Manitoba to invest $6.5 million in new systems

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WINNIPEG – The province of Manitoba is investing $6.5 million over three years to replace technical systems used in healthcare facilities, including replacing current voice dictation and transcription services with more modern systems and upgrading the Provincial Health Contact Centre (PHCC)’s triage, call-recording and telephone systems, Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson (pictured) announced.

“Our government is investing in the proper maintenance of information and communications technology to ensure digital health information can be safely stored and shared as needed,” said Stefanson. “These systems will ensure healthcare facilities can continue to provide high-quality services and allow Manitobans to get faster access to healthcare resources and information.”

Dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services are used by healthcare providers to write reports. There are currently approximately 80 healthcare sites across Manitoba using some combination of dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services. Many of these systems are nearing the end of their usable lifespans.

“Across our health system, radiologists and nuclear medicine physicians use voice-dictation services to help create diagnostic reports when reading imaging studies like ultrasound, nuclear medicine studies, X-rays, angiography, MRI and CT scans,” said Dr. Marco Essig, provincial specialty lead, diagnostic imaging, Shared Health. “Enhanced dictation and voice-recognition services will enable us to work more efficiently and provide healthcare providers with quicker access to these reports that support the diagnoses and treatment of Manitobans every day.”

The project will replace telephone-based dictation and transcription with voice-recognition functions, upgrade voice-recognition services for diagnostic imaging and enhance voice-recognition tools for mobile devices.

“Investing in more modern voice-transcription services will help our health-care workers do the administrative part of their jobs more quickly and effectively so they can get back to the most important part of their work – providing top-level healthcare and protecting Manitobans,” said Stefanson. “The transition to the new system will be made seamlessly so that services disruptions, which can lead to patient care safety risks, will not occur.”

The new systems will be compatible with other existing systems, will decrease turnaround times to improve patient care and will be standardized across the province to reduce ongoing costs and allow regional facilities to share resources as needed, Stefanson added.

The PHCC is a one-stop shop for incoming and outgoing citizen contact and supports programs such as Health Links–Info Santé, TeleCARE TeleSOINS and After-Hours Physician Access, as well as after-hours support services to public health, medical officers of health, home care and Manitoba Families.

The current vendor that supplies communications support to the PHCC is no longer providing service, making it an opportune time to invest in an upgraded system that will provide better service to Manitobans, the minister said, adding the project will provide the required systems and network infrastructure to continue providing essential services now and for the near future.

“The PHCC makes more than 650,000 customer service calls to Manitobans per year to a broad spectrum of clients with varied health issues. This reduces the need for people to visit a physician, urgent care or emergency departments,” said Stefanson. “The upgrade will also allow Manitobans in many communities to continue accessing the support they need from their home or local health centre, reducing the need for unnecessary travel.”

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Telus and UHN deliver services to the marginalized

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Telus’s Health for Good program has launched the latest of its specially equipped vans to provide medical services to the homeless and underserved, this time to the population of Toronto’s west end. The project relies not only on the hardware and software – the vans and technology – but on the care delivered by trained and socially sensitive medical professionals.

For the Toronto project, those professionals are working at the University Health Network’s Social Medicine program and the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. The city’s Parkdale community, in the west end, has a high concentration of homeless and marginalized people.

First launched in 2014, Telus’s Health for Good program has delivered mobile clinics to 13 Canadian cities, from Victoria to Halifax. Originally designed to deliver primary care, the program pivoted to meet the needs of patients in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Nimtaz Kanji, Calgary-based director of Telus Social Purpose Programs.

Angela Robertson of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre (CHC) asserted that marginalized people are particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, as they don’t have access to the basic precautions that prevent its spread.

The clinic is located near a Pizza Pizza franchise; homeless people shelter under its overhang on the weekends, she said. Some have encampments under nearby bridges.

“The public health guidelines and requirements call for things that individuals who are homeless don’t have,” Robertson said. “If the response calls for isolation, that suggests people have places to isolate in.”

And in the shelter system, pre-COVID, the environment was very congregate, with many people in the same physical space, said Robertson. Some homeless persons, in order to keep themselves safe, have created encampments, and the city has opened up some hotel rooms across the city to create spaces for physical distancing.

Even proper hand-washing and hygiene becomes a challenge for the homeless.

“COVID calls for individuals to practice constant hand-washing. Oftentimes, individuals who are homeless use public washroom facilities that may be in restaurants or coffee shops, and many of those spaces are now closed. So there are limitations to accessing those facilities. It’s not like they’re in a community where there are public hand-washing facilities for people who are homeless.”

The mobile health clinic allows the CHC to take “pop-up testing” into communities where there is high positivity and where additional COVID testing is needed. The CHC can take testing into congregate sites and congregate housing to provide more testing, Robertson said.

“The other piece that we will use the van to do is, when the vaccine supply gets back online, and when the health system gets to doing community vaccinations … we hope that we can be part of that effort.”

COVID has contributed to a spike in cases of Toronto’s other pandemic: opioid overdoses. Some community members are reluctant to seek care because of the stigma attached to substance abuse; and COVID has a one-two punch for users.

The first rule of substance abuse is, don’t use alone; always be with someone who can respond to a potential overdose, ideally someone who can administer Nalaxone to reverse the effects of the overdose, Robertson said. “It’s substance abuse 101,” and the need for social distancing makes this impossible.

Secondly, COVID has affected the supply chain of street drugs. As a result, they’re being mixed increasingly with “toxic” impurities like Fentanyl that can be deadly.

The van itself is a Mercedes Sprinter, modified by architectural firm éKM architecture et aménagement and builder Zone Technologie, both based in Montréal. According to Car and Driver magazine, the Sprinter line – with 21 cargo models and 10 passenger versions – is “considered by many to be the king of cargo and passenger vans.”

Kanji said the platform was chosen for its reputation for reliability and robustness.

While the configuration is customized for each mobile clinic, it generally consists of two sections: A practitioner’s workstation and a more spacious and private examination room, so patients can receive treatment with privacy and dignity, Kanji said. The Parkdale clinic is 92 square feet.

“While the layouts vary across regions, they typically include an examination table and health practitioners’ workstation, including equipment necessary to provide primary healthcare,” the Telus vice-president of provider solutions wrote in an e-mail interview. The Parkdale Queen West mobile clinic is designed for primary medical services, including wound care, mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, harm reduction services, mental healthcare and counseling.

The clinic equipped with an electronic medical record (EMR) from TELUS Health and TELUS LTE Wi-Fi network technology.

Practitioners will be able to collect and store patient data, examine a patient’s results over time, and provide better continuity of care to those marginalized citizens who often would have had undocumented medical histories.

The EMR system is Telus Health’s PS Suite (formerly Practice Solutions). It is an easy-to-use, customizable solution for general and specialty practices that captures, organizes, and displays patient information in a user-friendly way. The solution allows for the electronic management of patient charts and scheduling, receipt of labs and hospital reports directly into the EMR, and personalization of workflows with customizable templates, toolbars, and encounter assistants.

But like others tested for COVID, it’s a 24-48 hour wait for results. Pop-up or not, how does the mobile team get results to patients who have no fixed address?

The CHC set up a centre for testing in a tent at the Waterfront Community Centre. Swabs are sent to the lab. “We are responsible for connecting back with community members and their results,” Robertson said.

“This is the value of having Parkdale Queen West being in front of the testing, because many of the community members who are homeless we know through our other services, and there is some trust in folks either coming to us to make arrangements to collect their results, or we know where they are.”

This is a key element of the program, said Kanji – leveraging community trust. In Vancouver downtown east side, for example, where there is a high concentration of marginalized members of the indigenous community, nurse practitioners are accompanied by native elders in a partnership with the Kilala Lelum Health Centre.

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