Africa: Why NASA chose Senegal to observe a frozen world beyond Pluto

Artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto. The object nicknamed "Ultima Thule" will be the most primitive and most distant world ever explored by spacecraft. It has orbited undisturbed since the birth of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
Photos:NASA's New Horizons observations
Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto. The object nicknamed “Ultima Thule” will be the most primitive and most distant world ever explored by spacecraft. It has orbited undisturbed since the birth of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
Hide Caption
1 of 7
Two dozen Senegalese astronomers and scientists accompanied NASA's New Horizons team in Dakar, Senegal to collect precious data in preparation for the flyby of Ultima Thule on January 2019. Ancient objects in the Kuiper Belt like Ultima Thule, a medieval term that means beyond the known world, hold clues to the formation of planets and the "third zone" of our solar system in which they reside.<br />
Photos:NASA's New Horizons observations
Two dozen Senegalese astronomers and scientists accompanied NASA’s New Horizons team in Dakar, Senegal to collect precious data in preparation for the flyby of Ultima Thule on January 2019. Ancient objects in the Kuiper Belt like Ultima Thule, a medieval term that means beyond the known world, hold clues to the formation of planets and the “third zone” of our solar system in which they reside.

Hide Caption
2 of 7
Ultima Thule passed in front of a star. This event is called a stellar occultation and could be seen from Africa and South America. The phenomenon causes the star to momentarily blink and lasts only a second. But the shadow it casts gives the team enough data on the shape and size of Ultima Thule to help the New Horizons spacecraft when it passes by the object in January.
Photos:NASA's New Horizons observations
Ultima Thule passed in front of a star. This event is called a stellar occultation and could be seen from Africa and South America. The phenomenon causes the star to momentarily blink and lasts only a second. But the shadow it casts gives the team enough data on the shape and size of Ultima Thule to help the New Horizons spacecraft when it passes by the object in January.
Hide Caption
3 of 7
The event marked the first time Senegal was involved in a space mission to explore our solar system. Senegalese scientists were trained to use the telescope and acquisition systems, to be fully operational during the night of observation.<br />
Photos:NASA's New Horizons observations
The event marked the first time Senegal was involved in a space mission to explore our solar system. Senegalese scientists were trained to use the telescope and acquisition systems, to be fully operational during the night of observation.

Hide Caption
4 of 7
Occultation team member Michael Skrutskie (University of Virginia) is pictured here giving an impromptu lecture on observational astronomy to students from the University of Dakar following an "all hands" occultation team meeting near Dakar, Sénégal. From left are Mame Diarra Dieng, Bridget Anderson, Michael Skrutskie, Modou Mbaye, Abdou Lahat Dieng, Abdoulaye Ba, Salma Sylla Mbaye, and Patrick Edwards.
Photos:NASA's New Horizons observations
Occultation team member Michael Skrutskie (University of Virginia) is pictured here giving an impromptu lecture on observational astronomy to students from the University of Dakar following an “all hands” occultation team meeting near Dakar, Sénégal. From left are Mame Diarra Dieng, Bridget Anderson, Michael Skrutskie, Modou Mbaye, Abdou Lahat Dieng, Abdoulaye Ba, Salma Sylla Mbaye, and Patrick Edwards.
Hide Caption
5 of 7
 African countries have been making their own strides towards space exploration. Nigeria is planning to be the first African country to send an astronaut into space. The government announced the plans last year, and is aiming to visit space by 2030. Currently, the Egyptian government is establishing the Egyptian Space Agency in collaboration with China.
Photos:NASA's New Horizons observations
African countries have been making their own strides towards space exploration. Nigeria is planning to be the first African country to send an astronaut into space. The government announced the plans last year, and is aiming to visit space by 2030. Currently, the Egyptian government is establishing the Egyptian Space Agency in collaboration with China.
Hide Caption
6 of 7
Across the continent new programs represent a growing appetite for space technology. The Africa Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences involved in the NASA observation is aiming to elevate planetary and space science throughout the entire African continent.
Photos:NASA's New Horizons observations
Across the continent new programs represent a growing appetite for space technology. The Africa Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences involved in the NASA observation is aiming to elevate planetary and space science throughout the entire African continent.
Hide Caption
7 of 7
NASA SenegalNASA SenegalNASA SenegalNASA SenegalNASA SenegalNASA SenegalNASA Senegal

Salma Sylla Mbaye, is the first Ph.D. student in Astronomy in Senegal. She is in her second year at Cheikh Anta Diop university in Dakar. Mbaye was part of two dozen Senegalese astronomers and scientists that accompanied NASA’s New Horizons team to observe the flyby of an ancient object called the Ultima Thule (beyond the known world) orbiting just beyond Pluto. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

Dakar, Senegal (CNN)On a night in August, an object called 2014 MU69 passed in front of a star and blocked its light. This phenomenon, called a stellar occultation, lasted just a second and was visible only in certain regions in Africa (more exactly in Senegal, Mali and Algeria) and in South America in Colombia.

MU69 is an icy object of the Kuiper Belt, (informally named Ultima Thule) which was discovered in June 2014 with the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA is pursuing this object to learn more about the origins of our solar system.
    Senegal was chosen to observe this occultation, because of its political stability, and the existence of a community of amateur astronomers and scientists.
    The choice of Senegal was made despite the challenging climatic conditions in August (rainy season), which offered a probability of success of only 50%.
    Read More
    The observations organized by NASA in collaboration with Senegal will help with precious data for the preparation of the New Horizon spacecraft’s flyby of MU69, which will take place on the 1st of January 2019. It will help to confirm its shape, speed and position.
    This information is critical to make a successful approach of a small object at a distance a billion miles away from us.

    Most distant world ever explored

    MU69 is about 6.5 billions kilometers away from the sun. This is the most distant and most primitive world ever explored by spacecraft. The team behind NASA’s New Horizons, after successful exploration of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons in July 2015, decided to extend the mission further.
    Considering the possibilities offered by the current trajectory of the New Horizons probe, MU69 was chosen as the next target for a close flyby. In order to collect data for this object, the New Horizons team took advantage of a stellar occultation on July, 3, 2017, visible in Argentina and South Africa.
    The results from these observations suggested that the object has an elongated shape or could consist of two objects rotating around each other.
    This high-resolution image captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft shows Pluto's surface has a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. The bright expanse is the western lobe of the "heart," informally known as Tombaugh Regio. The lobe, informally called Sputnik Planum, has been found to be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices.
    Photos:Pluto in glorious color images
    Pluto's Brilliant 'Heart'This high-resolution image captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows Pluto’s surface has a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. The bright expanse is the western lobe of the “heart,” informally known as Tombaugh Regio. The lobe, informally called Sputnik Planum, has been found to be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices.
    Hide Caption
    1 of 4
    Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto's varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains.
    Photos:Pluto in glorious color images
    Pluto's Varied TerrainPluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains.
    Hide Caption
    2 of 4
    A detailed color map of Pluto taken during the NASA spacecraft's close flyby of Pluto in July 2015. The mosaic shows how Pluto's large-scale color patterns extend beyond the hemisphere facing New Horizons at closest approach, which were imaged at the highest resolution. North is up; Pluto's equator roughly bisects the band of dark red terrains running across the lower third of the map. Pluto's giant, informally named Sputnik Planitia glacier -- the left half of Pluto's signature "heart" feature -- is at the center of this map.
    Photos:Pluto in glorious color images
    Pluto Global Color MapA detailed color map of Pluto taken during the NASA spacecraft’s close flyby of Pluto in July 2015. The mosaic shows how Pluto’s large-scale color patterns extend beyond the hemisphere facing New Horizons at closest approach, which were imaged at the highest resolution. North is up; Pluto’s equator roughly bisects the band of dark red terrains running across the lower third of the map. Pluto’s giant, informally named Sputnik Planitia glacier — the left half of Pluto’s signature “heart” feature — is at the center of this map.
    Hide Caption
    3 of 4
    Scientists believe the haze is a photochemical smog resulting from the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules in Pluto's atmosphere.
    Photos:Pluto in glorious color images
    Pluto's Haze in Bands of BlueScientists believe the haze is a photochemical smog resulting from the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere.
    Hide Caption
    4 of 4
    NASA SenegalNASA SenegalNASA SenegalNASA Senegal
    For the observation in August 2018, approximately 21 Senegalese scientists actively participated in the preparation by choosing possible location sites across the country in a region extending from Thiès to Saint-Louis.
    They marked the observing sites, and this work was critical as NASA participants had to reach the observation sites, often in rural areas, by night. Then, the Senegalese scientists were trained to use the telescope and acquisition systems, to be fully operational during the night of observation.
    The goal of the training was to be able to set the telescope and acquisition system, point the telescope to the field of the view of the occulted start and acquire data for 10 to 20 minutes.
    A look through one of the New Horizons space program's telescopes, in Dakar.

    A look through one of the New Horizons space program’s telescopes, in Dakar.
    Each of the teams included one Senegalese scientist (either a postgraduate, a PhD student or a professor) and two astronomers from NASA or France (French planetary scientists also participated in the experiments).
    During the occultation observed in Senegal we have collected data using telescopes pointed in 21 different sites. These data are photometric measurements, which allow an accurate record of the time when MU69 passes in front of the star and blocks its light.
    Since it was rainy season in Senegal, we were not able to collect data in all of the 21 sites. In total, three sites acquired useful data.
    But, given the weather during the occultation night, we were really relieved that the occultation had been observed.
    Artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flying by MU69 on New Year's Day in 2019.

    Artist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flying by MU69 on New Year’s Day in 2019.

    Origins of our solar system

    In Senegal, astronomy is not taught at university level. However the Senegalese government is building a planetarium and an astronomical observatory.
    For the new generation, Senegal would like to focus on research areas where it can contribute, based on available equipment, expertise and financial means.
    Read more: Africa’s journey into space
    This includes the monitoring of meteoroid impacts on the Moon or giant planets, the survey of variable stars, the search of observation of exoplanets, or the monitoring of the atmosphere of giant planets.
    The exploration of MU69 by New Horizons will allows to us understand more about the origins of our solar system.
    Data collected from observations help refine prepration for the farthest planetary encounter in history.

    Data collected from observations help refine prepration for the farthest planetary encounter in history.
    The flyby will reveal an unknown world. As for Pluto, the knowledge about this object will change from a ‘tiny dot’ to high resolution images of mysterious landscapes.
    The recent geological activity of Pluto, the existence of the largest 1,000 kilometer wide heart shaped nitrogen glacier in the solar system, and the blue color of its atmosphere were among the top 10 unexpected discoveries as a result of the New Horizons flyby of Pluto. Who can tell what will be found at MU69?
      The future of this collaboration is also in our hands, by developing research projects in our country and at African level for example the Africa Initiative for Planetary and Space Science and maintaining the links that were established with NASA scientists on this occasion.
      Ideas, such as organizing a future workshop of planetary atmospheres, have been raised. We learn a lot by comparing our planet with other planets, and in the context of climate change, such a workshop about planetary atmospheres in Senegal would really make sense.

        Leave a Comment

        © 2019 BBE News. All rights reserved.