Why NASA chose Senegal to watch the frozen world behind Pluto

MU69 is the icy object of the Kuiper Belt (informally named Ultima Thule), which was discovered in June 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA follows this goal and learns more about the origin of our solar system.

Senegal was elected to follow this occultation because of its political stability and the existence of a community of amateur astronomers and scientists.

The selection of Senegal has been carried out in spite of the severe climatic conditions in August (rainy season), which offer a probability of success of only 50%.

Observations by NASA, in collaboration with Senegal, will help with precious data on the preparation of the MU69 exploration of the New Horizon spacecraft, to be held on January 1, 2019. It will help confirm its shape, speed and position.

This information is essential to successfully access a small object away from us billions of kilometers.

The most distant world ever explored

MU69 is about 6.5 billion kilometers from the sun. It is the most remote and most primitive world ever explored by the spacecraft. The NASA New Horizons team, after a successful exploration of Pluto and its moons in July 2015, decided to extend the mission further.

Given the possibilities offered by the current New Horizons trajectory, MU69 was selected as an additional target for near-passes. For the purpose of collecting data for this object, the New Horizons team used the occlusion on July 3, 2017, visible in Argentina and South Africa.

The results of these observations indicate that the object has an elongated shape or may consist of two objects rotating about each other.

For observation in August 2018, some approximately 21 Senegalese scientists actively participated in the preparation of a selection of possible locations throughout the country in the Thièse to Saint-Louis region.

They noted observation sites and this work was critical because NASA participants had to attend observation nights at night, often in rural areas. Then Senegalese scientists were trained to use telescope and acquisition systems to be fully functional at night observation.

The aim of the training was to place the telescope and the acquisition system, focus the telescope on the field of the ocular start display, and collect the data for 10 to 20 minutes.

Each of the teams included one Senegalese scientist (postgraduate, doctorate or professor) and two astronomers from NASA or France (French planetary scientists also participated in experiments).

During observation contained in Senegal, we collected data using a telescope focused on 21 different locations. These data are photometric measurements that allow accurate recording of the time when MU69 passes in front of a star and blocks its light.

Given that there was a rainy season in Senegal, we were unable to collect data in all 21 locations. A total of three sites received useful data.

But due to the weather during the Occult Night, we really relieved that obscuration was observed.

A view across one of the New Horizons spacecraft's telescopes in Dakar.

The origins of our solar system

In Senegal, astronomy does not teach at university level. However, the Senegalese government builds a planetarium and astronomical observatory.

For the new generation, Senegal would like to focus on research areas on which it can contribute on the basis of available equipment, expertise and financial resources.

Read more: Africa is the way into space

This includes monitoring the meteoroid impact on the moon or the giant planet, exploring the variable stars, looking for exoplanets, or watching the atmosphere of the giant planets.

The New Horizons MU69 survey allows us to understand more about the origin of our solar system.

Flying will reveal an unknown world. As for Pluto, the knowledge of this object will change from a "small point" to high resolution images of mysterious landscapes.

The data collected from the observations help to refine the preparation for the most distant planetary encounters in history.
The recent geological activity of Pluto, the existence of the largest 1000-kilometer wide nitrogen in the heart-shaped solar system, and the blue color of its atmosphere, was one of the top ten unexpected discoveries as a result of Pluto's New Horizons. Who can find out what's at MU69?
The future of this cooperation is also in our hands by developing research projects in our country and at African level, for example in the African Initiative for Planetary and Space Science and maintaining the links that have been based on NASA scientists on this occasion.

Ideas have been raised, such as the organization of a future atmosphere planetary workshop. We learn a lot by comparing our planet with other planets, and in the context of climate change, such a seminar on the planetary atmosphere in Senegal really made sense.

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