Pluto explorer ushering in new year at more distant world
By MARCIA DUNN
AP Aerospace Writer
Thursday, December 27
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The spacecraft team that brought us close-ups of Pluto will ring in the new year by exploring an even more distant and mysterious world.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will zip past the scrawny, icy object nicknamed Ultima Thule (TOO-lee) soon after the stroke of midnight.
One billion miles beyond Pluto and an astounding 4 billion miles from Earth (1.6 billion kilometers and 6.4 billion kilometers), Ultima Thule will be the farthest world ever explored by humankind. That’s what makes this deep-freeze target so enticing; it’s a preserved relic dating all the way back to our solar system’s origin 4.5 billion years ago. No spacecraft has visited anything so primitive.
“What could be more exciting than that?” said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.
Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year’s encounter to be riskier and more difficult than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.
NASA launched the spacecraft in 2006; it’s about the size of a baby grand piano. It flew past Pluto in 2015, providing the first close-up views of the dwarf planet. With the wildly successful flyby behind them, mission planners won an extension from NASA and set their sights on a destination deep inside the Kuiper Belt. As distant as it is, Pluto is barely in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called Twilight Zone stretching beyond Neptune. Ultima Thule is in the Twilight Zone’s heart.
This Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot. Good close-up pictures should be available the day after the flyby.
ARE WE THERE YET?
New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of Jan. 1 — 12:33 a.m. EST. The spacecraft will zoom within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule, its seven science instruments going full blast. The coast should be clear: Scientists have yet to find any rings or moons around it that could batter the spacecraft. New Horizons hurtles through space at 31,500 mph (50,700 kph), and even something as minuscule as a grain of rice could demolish it. “There’s some danger and some suspense,” Stern said at a fall meeting of astronomers. It will take about 10 hours to get confirmation that the spacecraft completed — and survived — the encounter.
Scientists speculate Ultima Thule could be two objects closely orbiting one another. If a solo act, it’s likely 20 miles (32 kilometers) long at most. Envision a baked potato. “Cucumber, whatever. Pick your favorite vegetable,” said astronomer Carey Lisse of Johns Hopkins. It could even be two bodies connected by a neck. If twins, each could be 9 miles to 12 miles (15 kilometers to 20 kilometers) in diameter.
Scientists will map Ultima Thule every possible way. They anticipate impact craters, possibly also pits and sinkholes, but its surface also could prove to be smooth. As for color, Ultima Thule should be darker than coal, burned by eons of cosmic rays, with a reddish hue. Nothing is certain, though, including its orbit, so big that it takes almost 300 of our Earth years to circle the sun. Scientists say they know just enough about the orbit to intercept it.
New Horizons will get considerably closer to Ultima Thule than it did to Pluto: 2,220 miles versus 7,770 miles (3,500 kilometers vs. 12,500 kilometers). At the same time, Ultima Thule is 100 times smaller than Pluto and therefore harder to track, making everything more challenging. It took 4 ½ hours, each way, for flight controllers at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, to get a message to or from New Horizons at Pluto. Compare that with more than six hours at Ultima Thule.
It will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its data on Ultima Thule. A flyby of an even more distant world could be in the offing in the 2020s, if NASA approves another mission extension and the spacecraft remains healthy. At the very least, the nuclear-powered New Horizons will continue to observe objects from afar, as it pushes deeper into the Kuiper Belt. There are countless objects out there, waiting to be explored.
The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
There are only 7 reindeer in NJ, and this guy owns 2 of them
By Ted SHERMAN
Monday, December 24
Call him one of Santa’s helpers and just like the jolly old elf himself, Mark Sopko has been very busy this Christmas season.
But it’s not toys that keep Sopko occupied through the holidays.
It’s reindeer. He’s got two of them, and as one might imagine, they’re in high demand this time of year.
“They’re wonderful. They bring all that joy around the holiday,” said Sopko of Reindeer Magic and Miracles.
Named Thunder and Jingles, they make their home year-round at Sopko’s Central Jersey farm, but spend much of their time after the arrival of Thanksgiving making appearances at local and private events, schools, parades, breakfasts with Santa, and sometimes even the occasional office Christmas party.
It’s a short-lived season. No one’s much thinking about reindeer in January, and both reindeer typically shed their antlers after the holiday — one in January and the other in April.
To many, though, reindeer are nothing less than mythical creatures. It’s the whole flying sleigh thing and, you know, the big jolly guy in the red suit.
Sopko, 49, a former zookeeper, recounts the many conversations he’s had with unbelievers. “Many times, adults ask ‘what kind of animal is it?’ It’s a reindeer, I tell them,” he said.
Still, they persist. Come on. Really. What is it?
“It’s a reindeer. That’s what it is,” Sopko responds.
And they are. Native to the Arctic and the northern reaches of Europe, these reindeer do not come from the North Pole. They come breeders across the United States, where there is a network of reindeer ranchers who also live for this time of year.
Unfortunately for Kris Kringle, their numbers have been dramatically decreasing in the wild, according to a report earlier this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the past two decades, Arctic caribou and wild reindeer populations have dropped sharply from 4.7 million to 2.1 million grazing animals — with the largest declines in Alaska and Canada. The report blamed the declines on Arctic warming, which it said has increased the frequency of drought, affecting the quality of forage. The NOAA report also noted that longer, warmer summers can increase flies, parasites and lead to disease outbreaks in the herds.
In New Jersey, reindeer are currently banned from import, according the state Department of Environmental Protection, because of the risk of Chronic Wasting Disease. A contagious and deadly neurological disorder, Chronic Wasting Disease causes fatal damage to the central nervous system in members of the deer family.
“There are eight permitted reindeer in the state — Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna, initially unaware of the legal status of Thunder and Jingles.
A further check by Hajna revealed there are actually just seven reindeer with the right paperwork to call New Jersey home, but none of them apparently belong to Santa. According to DEP records, those seven animals are owned by two individuals. Sopko is one of them.
This is a second go-round as a reindeer wrangler for Sopko, who acquired his first pair, Rocket and Fetch, back in 2012.
He delighted in their antics True to his name, Rocket liked to run around. And Fetch, well, was always going after sticks. Sadly, he said, they both succumbed to tick-borne disease, and he thought for a time about leaving the reindeer to Santa.
“That was a really tough time for us, losing the two of them,” he recalled. “It looked like the end.”
But ultimately after their deaths, he decided to bring home another pair — Thunder, a three-year-old male, and Jingles, a five-year-old female.
It’s not all fun and games. Reindeer are a lot of work, said Sopko. He’s out twice a day, feeding them and bringing them fresh water, although they prefer to eat snow than drink water when the flakes start falling.
They get fresh hay. For treats, Thunder likes to munch every now and then on a bit of lichen, which Sopko said reindeer eat like grass in their native habitat. Jingles is partial to apples. Their hooves have to be trimmed. There’s reindeer poop. And the antlers. You have to protect the antlers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture comes out every year and inspects them.
Sopko said they are very curious animals and can have playful bursts. At one event, one of his reindeer stood transfixed by a group of young dancers who were performing the Nutcracker, intrigued by what was going on. Still he said they’re very docile.
After Christmas, like Santa, their work will be done.
He’s gotten offers to appear at Christmas in July parties, but it’s too hot for the reindeer. They get the summer off. During the warm weather, their shelter is in a grove of evergreen trees and he has fans to keep them cool. If he has to transport them in the summer, their trailer has an air conditioner.
“They’re very pampered,” he said.