In the third quarter of last year, August 2018, a number of NASA scientists along with scientists from France made way to Senegal with several astronomical instruments. These scientists, along with over 20 others based in Dakar, Senegal were part of a mission to investigate an asteroid that was to fly by the Earth, known as Ultima Thule in January 2019.
Well, this is not an entirely new feat, except for Senegal for whom it was the first time the African state was taking part in a mission of that nature. The following were the information gotten from David Baratoux, the chairman of African Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences (AIPSS).
Just as a reminder, Pluto’s pleasant landscape of ice was brought out to limelight by the New Horizon spacecraft that NASA built. Now the spacecraft is now traveling towards the boundary of our solar system towards a large piece of rock, known as the Ultima Thule, in the Kuiper belt, orbiting our star. The significance of this mission are numerous, one of them being that it would stamp upon history that human spacecraft has reached a distance in space that it never had.
These kind of missions are critical for several reasons, among them being the need to know the mass, geometry and precise position of the object. But the Ultima poses some challenges; it is not so visible and clearly observable. It therefore required a lot of work to put New Horizon in the path that would lead the spacecraft directly to where it is supposed to go. Considerations were made, and eventually the scientists resorted to the phenomenon of “stellar occultations” to compute the trajectory of New Horizon. This is where Senegal came in the spotlight.
Well, stellar occultation, is what you observe when starlight gets obstructed by an asteroid; like an “asteroid-eclipse”. It happens very quickly, just for a few seconds. The predictions show that the Ultima Thule would be involved in this phenomenon in August 2018, as it happened in 2017 with the same asteroid. This time, the stellar occultation would be observed from Mali, Colombia, Algeria, and Senegal.
After looking at several factors, from climatic conditions, depth of scientific research to available facilities to security situations, Senegal was chosen. Talking scientific research and facilities, Senegal have a good track record in astronomy and the science of planets; mostly pioneered by the Senegalese Association for the Promotion of Astronomy. A good number of scientists of Senegalese descent also play key roles in the AIPSS. NASA also sent a few scientists as well to Colombia and Algeria to try to make observations of the phenomenon.
Overall, the mission was met with reasonable success with significant data collected in the fourth night of observation. The New Horizon team is now refining the mass of data collated.
It is worthy of mention that the Senegalese really welcomed the scientists, from the average person exchanging friendly greetings with scientists carrying telescopes in the middle of the night commuting across streets to the president who grated the researchers an audience. The mission was integrated into the country’s long-range scientific and economic plans.
Public sessions were also organized featuring scientists from different countries delivering top lectures; lectures attended by locals and youths, with thought-provoking questions pouring from the audience. The entire mission certainly left Senegal better.
Credit: The Conversation