This article is provided by Curriculum Simulation, a leader in space science curriculum software and the maker of SkySafari and Pluto Safari applications for Android and iOS.
At 12.33 EST (0533 GMT) on January 1, 2019, a human robot messenger will fly through a world that has never been seen before in the outer solar system. The New Horizons spacecraft, which has a very successful meeting with Pluto on July 14 2015, was given an additional mission to explore the far Kuiper Belt Object designated as MU69 2014 and unofficially named Ultima Thule.
At one billion miles outside Pluto, this will be the furthest spacecraft in human history. At the closest approach, New Horizons will travel at blazing speeds of 32,279 miles per hour (or 51,948 km / hour) and will only pass 2,175 miles (3,500 km) of objects. That's three times closer than what ever happened to Pluto. The sun will carry small dots of light more than 43 astronomical units (AU, the average distance between the Earth and the sun). Nonetheless, we hope to receive thrilling images of reddish, dual-lobed (or possibly double-bodied) objects to help us understand the formation and evolution of our solar system. [These Are the Most Out-of-This-World Photos Ever Taken — Literally]
For fans of astronomy and space, flying will make this New Year's Day a special time to celebrate. But the radio signals from New Horizons, and the tempting new images they will bring to us, will not arrive at earth-based recipients for more than 6 hours later. In this edition of Cellular Astronomy, we will discuss how to make the most of this historic event. You can use your favorite mobile device to read interesting books about the mission, watching NASA TV coverage of events at the NASA application starting around midday on December 31 (if the closure of the government is over and NASA TV back in action – if not the Applied Physics Laboratory Johns Hopkins will have a live broadcast), and you can experience the meeting almost using the free Pluto Safari app, from the maker of the SkySafari 6 astronomy application.
Pluto Safari application
The Pluto Safari application (free downloads from Google Play for Android and the Apple app store for iOS) was originally created to provide, in an easy way, a lot of information about the 2015 New Horizons meeting with Pluto. To fly Ultima Thule, the application has been updated to include extended mission timelines from investigations, spacecraft locations and target objects (now, and for all mission phases), background information about spacecraft and target objects, and the latest news . Plus, all information on Pluto's encounter is still included in the application.
The home page of the Pluto Safari application displays a run-down countdown to flyby and the current distance between New Horizon and Ultima Thule. This will tell you the exact second when flyby will occur. Two very useful aspects of the Pluto safari application are news feeds and interactive solar system simulators. The latter is used in several instructive ways to convey the true meaning of the meeting.
On the home page, tap the News icon to call for news, data, and the latest discoveries about the mission. When the story is released by the New Horizons science team, the application adds content to the top of the news feed. Each article is written with non-expert thoughts and incorporates related images. There is also an annotated image gallery.
The Guide icon on the home page opens a list of articles that cover the main aspects of the mission. Historical and background information about Pluto and Ultima Thule is here, as well as mission design, spacecraft instrumentation, and scientific results from Pluto's meeting. Each article is accompanied by diagrams and images.
Tapping the Polling icon on the home screen leads to a page where users can read about the International Astronomical Union's decision to drop Pluto to a dwarf planet in 2006, weigh arguments on both sides, and then vote for their opinion!
Fly the New Horizons mission virtually
The simulator of the solar system on Pluto Safari will be familiar to users of the SkySafari application series. This is used for the Timeline and Location functions in the application. The Timeline page presents information about each milestone in the New Horizons mission, allowing users to go through each phase of the mission – starting from the launch in 2006, Jupiter's gravity assistance, various distance milestones, the object's first image, Pluto's meeting, and Ultima Thule's flight. In each case, the date and time and distance from the New Horizon to Earth and Pluto are indicated.
The View button launches a simulated 3D display of each time event from the perspective of the New Horizons in space. In this mode, you can pinch and zoom to resize objects, slide your finger to change the display orientation, or use the up and down arrow icons to change your distance from the spacecraft. (The current distance is displayed in the upper left corner of the screen.)
Most simulations are launched with time flowing forward by default. Tapping the clock icon at the bottom of the screen will open the time flow control panel, allowing you to move forward or backward, continuously or gradually. To stop the flow of time, tap one of the two deepest arrows. To continue, tap one of the outer arrows. The time flow rate is controlled by selecting each parameter of time or date, such as the month or hour. If you speed up the event, run the countdown time or just go back to the Timeline page and tap the View icon to restart the event.
To deliver each meeting clearly, the options displayed on the screen vary. For example, Pluto's flyby shows the moon's orbit of Pluto, while the Ultima flyby displays the orbits of all planets and Ultima Thule, plus the spacecraft's path through it.
The Location page offers seven ways to see the current status of the New Horizon mission. One of them shows the position of the spaceship and Ultima Thule in the sky seen from your location on Earth. On January 1, 2019, their position was 0.25 degrees northwest of the naked star Al Baldah (also designated 41 Sagittarii). The part of the sky will sink shortly after the evening sun in early January, but the objects will be too close to the sun to be observed, and will be far below the horizon for observers of the Western Hemisphere at flyby. A second sky view is provided for Pluto, which will be closer to the sun on January 1, 2019.
The other five simulation displays are 3-dimensional models of spacecraft and the solar system. One shows the New Horizon path, Ultima Thule and its orbits, and the orbits of the main planets, all seen from far above the plane of the solar system. Another view shows the approach of the probe from Ultima Thule looking in from a point of view near the plane of the solar system.
The most attractive option, the Kuiper Belt Objects View, includes the basic elements of the other two views, but adds 9 of the main KBOs found so far, including Eris, the object that caused the demotion of Pluto to become a dwarf planet. You can also use the pinch option to minimize and present the enormous Sedna orbit. Tilting the model to bring the orbits of classical planets into one field will reveal how diverse these distant world trends are.
The last two simulations focused on Pluto. As before, the option to zoom in and out, redirect the model, and time to flow will make you experience virtual flying. And, if you have your device when New Horizons flies past Ultima Thule, you will feel like you are on a trip.
When you are waiting for the Utlima Thule highway, you can use your mobile device to catch up to some New Horizons and Pluto backgrounds. Download a version of the ebook or audio book from "Chasing the New Horizon: Inside the First Epic Mission to Pluto" – an interesting and in-depth story about the mission by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon. Despite knowing the results, the author managed to build tension during important moments in the journey for decades from the conception of the mission to the meeting of Pluto. If you choose an audiobook, you will be able to hear the author himself recounting his journey.
Use your device's browser to set to NASA TV for coverage directly from the Ultima Thule flyt (again, if the government shutdown has ended). At present, the mission preview and briefing schedule starts at 1 pm on Friday, December 28, the first picture and science from Ultima Thule at 10 am on January 1, and science updates are extended to Thursday, January 3. TV is not active, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will broadcast mission activities directly on their website and on YouTube.
Either way, I will listen. See you on the other side!
In the upcoming Mobile Astronomy edition, we will preview the best astronomical events in 2019, explore how constellations are seen in three dimensions, highlight some winter observation targets, and more. Until then, keep looking up!
Editor's Note: Chris Vaughan is an astronomical and educational public outreach expert at AstroGeo, a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and historic 74-inch (1.88 meter) David Dunlap Observatory telescope operator. You can contact him via email, and follow him on Twitter @astrogeoguy, as well as on Facebook and Tumblr.