NASA sets launch date for SpaceX U.S. manned mission to space station

By Joey Roulette

(Reuters) – NASA on Friday set a launch date of May 27 for its first astronaut mission from U.S. soil in nearly ten years.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space company, SpaceX, will send two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its Falcon 9 rocket from Florida – marking the company’s first mission carrying humans aboard.

“BREAKING: On May 27, @NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil!” Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.

The U.S. space agency had previously said the mission, in which NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, 48, and Doug Hurley, 52 will ride SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to the space station, would launch sometime in May.

As with most high-profile missions, the new date could slip. If all goes as planned, the mission would mark the first time NASA launches its astronauts from U.S. soil since the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle.

The space agency has since relied on Russia’s space program to ferry astronauts to the space station.

A decade in the making, next month’s mission is the final test for Crew Dragon before regularly flying humans for NASA under its Commercial Crew Program, a public-private initiative. Boeing Co is developing its competing Starliner astronaut taxi as the agency’s second ride to space.

The agency is mulling whether to extend Behnken and Hurley’s stay aboard the space station from a week as originally planned to up to six months in order to ensure U.S. astronauts are staffed on the station continuously.

Timelines for the crew program have been pushed back by years, with the first crew launch originally slated for early 2017.

The development delays with Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner have forced NASA to buy more crew seats from Russia’s space agency, an increasingly costly expense as Moscow scales its own Soyuz program back to just two missions a year.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Bill Berkrot)

NASA astronaut Christina Koch returns to Earth after record mission

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – American astronaut Christina Koch, who led the first all-female spacewalk in 2019, landed in Kazakhstan on Thursday after a record stay on the International Space Station, ending a 328-day mission expected to yield new insights into deep-space travel.

Koch, a North Carolina-born engineer who joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013, set the record for the longest stay in space by a woman. Her mission will provide researchers valuable data on how weightlessness and space radiation affect the female body on long spaceflights.

“Women acclimate well to space, so I think this is a milestone that will be overtaken by women in the future and it’s what we aspire to,” said Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator.

The Soyuz MS-13 capsule touched down on the snowy Kazakh Steppe at 4:12 am ET (0912 GMT) carrying Koch, 41, European astronaut Luca Parmitano of Italy and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov.

They will be flown by search and recovery teams to the Karaganda region to begin their journey home.

“I’m just so overwhelmed and happy right now,” Koch said, sitting in a chair wrapped in blankets as she waited to be carried into a medical tent to restore her balance in gravity.

Koch also achieved a gender milestone in a spacewalk with fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir last October that marked the first time two women stepped out of the space station at the same time. They completed two more all-female spacewalks in January.

NASA’s first attempt at an all-female spacewalk in March 2019 was called off https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-women-space/nasa-cancels-first-all-women-spacewalk-due-to-lack-of-small-spacesuits-idUSKCN1R71CE due to a lack of a spacesuit in the right size, which ignited a gender-equity debate.

Koch’s 328 days in space eclipsed Peggy Whitson’s record for an American woman on a single spaceflight at 289 days.

Scott Kelly holds the overall American record at 340 days, and Russia’s Valeri Polyakov holds the global record of 437 days aboard the defunct Mir space station.

Astronauts on the space station, whose 20th anniversary in low-Earth orbit comes later this year, have made 227 maintenance spacewalks, nearly two dozen of which included women astronauts, according to NASA.

Studying the impact of lengthy spaceflights could prove useful for NASA’s aim of building a permanent space station on the moon within the next decade.

Kelly’s 340 days demonstrated that long-term spaceflight causes thickening of the carotid artery and retina, changes in gene expression, and slight cognitive impairment for men.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Sandra Maler, Giles Elgood and Bernadette Baum)

2019 was second-hottest year ever, more extreme weather coming: World Meteorological Organization

GENEVA (Reuters) – Last year was the second-hottest year since records began, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Wednesday, warning that heat was likely to lead to more extreme weather events like the Australian bushfires in 2020 and beyond.

The data from the Geneva-based WMO crunches several datasets including from NASA and the UK Met Office. It showed that the average global temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degree Celsius (34°F) above pre-industrial levels.

“Australia had its hottest, driest year on record in 2019, setting the scene for the massive bushfires which were so devastating to people and property, wildlife, ecosystems and the environment,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

“Unfortunately, we expect to see much extreme weather throughout 2020 and the coming decades, fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

The hottest year on record was in 2016, the WMO said, due to the warming impact of a strong El Nino event.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Ten years after ‘suicide’ mission, NASA thirsts for lunar water

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A decade after NASA sent a rocket crashing into the moon’s south pole, spewing a plume of debris that revealed vast reserves of ice beneath the barren lunar surface, the space agency is racing to pick up where its little-remembered project left off.

The so-called LCROSS mission was hastily carried out 10 years ago Wednesday in a complex orbital dance of two “suicide” spacecraft and one mapping satellite. It proved a milestone in the discovery of a natural lunar resource that could be key to NASA’s plans for renewed human exploration of the moon and ultimately visits to Mars and beyond.

“The LCROSS mission was a game changer,” NASA’s chief Jim Bridenstine told Reuters, adding that once water had been found the United States “should have immediately as a nation changed our direction to the moon so we could figure out how to use it.”

The agency now has the chance to follow up on the pioneering mission, after Vice President Mike Pence in March ordered NASA to land humans on the lunar surface by 2024, accelerating a goal to colonize the moon as a staging ground for eventual missions to Mars.

Bridenstine says the moon holds billions of tons of water ice, although the exact amount and whether it’s present in large chunks of ice or combined with the lunar soil remains unknown. To find out before astronauts arrive on the moon, NASA is working with a handful of companies to put rovers on the lunar surface by 2022.

“We need next to get on the surface with a rover to prospect for water, drill into it, and determine how suitable it is for extraction,” said Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado.

Instead of launching expensive fuel loads from Earth, scientists say the lunar water could be extracted and broken down into its two main components, hydrogen and oxygen, potentially turning the moon into a fuel arsenal for missions to deeper parts of the solar system.

OPEN KIMONO

Weeks before the LCROSS impact booster struck the moon’s south pole, the mission’s development timeline “was a bad rush to the finish line,” Tony Colaprete, principal investigator for LCROSS, told Reuters.

“We wanted to make as large of a hole as possible to get as much materials out of the shadows and into the sunlight,” Colaprete said, describing an unusually fast-paced program using technology that had never been used in space before.

Engineers and mission leaders used the business phrase “open kimono” about disclosing company information to characterize the program’s breakneck development speed and the need for clear and open lines of communication between contractors and NASA.

“That almost became a mantra for the project,” Colaprete said.

The current lunar program is also “forcing some cultural changes” at NASA, he added, which has undergone a series of high-level management changes and delays with the agency’s commercial crew program, a public-private effort to resume U.S. human spaceflight for the first time since 2011.

“People are coming together in a way like they did on LCROSS.”

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Richard Pullin)

Earth to FEDOR: Russia launches humanoid robot into space

Russian Soyuz-2.1a booster with the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft carrying robot Skybot F-850 blasts off from a launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan August 22, 2019. Russian space agency Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian humanoid robot was making its way on Thursday to the International Space Station after blasting off on a two-week mission to support the crew and test his skills.

Known as FEDOR, which stands for Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research, the Skybot F-850 is the first humanoid robot to be sent to space by Russia. NASA sent humanoid robot Robonaut 2 to space in 2011 to work in hazardous environments.

“The robot’s main purpose it to be used in operations that are especially dangerous for humans onboard spacecraft and in outer space,” Russian space agency Roscosmos said on Thursday after the launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The ISS is a joint project of the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.

Traveling in an unmanned Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft, FEDOR is expected to dock at the ISS on Saturday with 1,450 pounds (660 kg) of cargo including medical supplies and food rations for the crew waiting at the station, NASA said.

FEDOR, who is the size an adult and can emulate movements of the human body, has apparently embraced his mission, describing himself as “an assistant to the ISS crew” on his Twitter page, which has 4,600 followers.

“Everything is normal,” a tweet posted on his account said a few hours into his flight.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Plans detailed for first U.S. mission to land on moon since Apollo

FILE PHOTO: A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., August 8, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper/File Photo

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) – The first American spacecraft expected to land on the moon in nearly 50 years will be an unmanned robotic lander built by closely held Astrobotic Technology Inc and launched in two years by United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, the companies told Reuters on Monday.

Astrobotic was one of nine companies chosen in November to compete for $2.6 billion to develop small space vehicles and other technology for 20 missions to explore the lunar surface over the next decade.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic picked Vulcan, being developed by a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, to launch its Peregrine lander from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in summer 2021. That launch will be Vulcan’s first, and a major test for a rocket that will become the backbone of ULA’s defense against rival boosters from billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other companies.

Barring schedule slips, Astrobotic said Peregrine would be the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since Apollo astronauts touched down in 1972.

The mission will ferry technology and experiments to the moon under a NASA program that will lay the groundwork for astronaut trips by 2024 under the optimistic schedule laid out by the Trump administration.

“Our first flight on Vulcan is also the first big step in going back to the moon,” United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno told Reuters ahead of the announcement.

Astrobotic said in May that NASA awarded it $79.5 million for the first mission, which will carry up to 28 payloads from eight different countries, including the United States and Mexico.

While the dollar value of the launch contract was not disclosed, it marks a high-profile victory for ULA’s flagship heavy-lift rocket, which Astrobotic said it chose over a rival bid from SpaceX.

While SpaceX has already slashed the cost of launches with its reusable rocket technology, Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, whose BE-4 engines power the Vulcan, is also working on a heavy-lift booster.

MANY MOONSHOTS

NASA is pushing to outsource the design, development and operations for some space activities to private companies under a strategy championed by Trump-appointed administrator Jim Bridenstine. He wants NASA to be one customer of many in the low-Earth and lunar marketplaces to pave the way for deeper space exploration.

For ULA, the launch serves as the first of two certification flights for the U.S. Air Force. Vulcan will replace ULA’s legacy Delta and Atlas rocket families, synonymous with space missions for the U.S. military for decades.

ULA and Astrobotic acknowledge production problems or other factors could delay the launch schedule.

Other countries are also focused on the moon. A Chinese space probe successfully touched down on the far side of the moon in January, though Israel’s unmanned robotic lander Beresheet crashed on its final descent in April. India’s Chandrayaan-2 rover, launched in July, was on its way to the moon’s south pole, unexplored by any other nation.

“Everything that humans will do on the moon’s surface will be enhanced by robotic surface assets,” Astrobotic Chief Executive John Thornton told Reuters ahead of the announcement planned for Monday.

The Astrobotic deal marked the second time in a week that ULA beat SpaceX on a high-profile contract. On Wednesday, Sierra Nevada Corp picked Vulcan to launch its Dream Chaser space plane on cargo missions to the International Space Station, which will be the second Vulcan launch.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Cynthia Osterman)

Robots to install telescopes to peer into cosmos from the moon

University of Colorado Boulder director of NASA/NLSI Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research Jack Burns points out locations on a lunar globe at the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

By Joey Roulette

BOULDER, Colo. (Reuters) – As the United States races to put humans back on the moon for the first time in 50 years, a NASA-funded lab in Colorado aims to send robots there to deploy telescopes that will look far into our galaxy, remotely operated by orbiting astronauts.

The radio telescopes, to be planted on the far side of the moon, are among a plethora of projects underway by the U.S. space agency, private companies and other nations that will transform the moonscape in the coming decade.

“This is not your grandfather’s Apollo program that we’re looking at,” said Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado, which is working on the telescope project.

“This is really a very different kind of program and very importantly it’s going to involve machines and humans working together,” Burns said in an interview at his lab on the Boulder campus.

Sometime in the coming decade, Burns’ team will send a rover aboard a lunar lander spacecraft to the far side of the moon. The rover will rumble across the craggy and rough surface – featuring a mountain taller than any on earth – to set up a network of radio telescopes with little help from humans. 

Astronauts will be able to control the rover’s single robotic arm from an orbital lunar outpost called Gateway, which an international consortium of space agencies is building. The platform will provide access to and from the moon’s surface and serve as a refueling station for deep space missions.

The goal is to give astronauts control of the rover “in a quicker fashion and more like doing some sort of video game,” said Ben Mellinkoff, a graduate student at the university. His project is telerobotics, or using artificial intelligence to give users better control over robotic movements from afar.

“It has a lot of potential, especially applied toward space exploration,” he says.

The rover, being built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will plant the shoebox-sized telescopes on the moon’s regolith – the dust, soil and broken rock that covers its surface. Unfettered by the noisy radio interference and light that hinders Earth-bound space observations, the telescopes will peer into the cosmic void, looking back in time to the early formation of our solar system, Burns says.

University of Colorado Boulder PhD student Dan Prendergast participates in an experiment to test whether he operates a robot better in 2D or virtual reality at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. The team's findings may help determine what camera systems will be implemented on robots destined to perform tasks on the moon. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

University of Colorado Boulder PhD student Dan Prendergast participates in an experiment to test whether he operates a robot better in 2D or virtual reality at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., June 24, 2019. The team’s findings may help determine what camera systems will be implemented on robots destined to perform tasks on the moon. REUTERS/Michael Ciaglo

ROBOT PROTOTYPE

Working out of a small lab on the Boulder campus, Mellinkoff and two fellow graduate students have built a prototype of the robot named Armstrong (named for the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong). It is made from computer parts and powered by two modified portable cell phone chargers.

On a recent visit, Mellinkoff controlled the robotic arm using an X-box gaming controller, driving it toward an assortment of shoe-sized objects created with 3-D printing and resembling the radio telescopes to be planted on the moon.

“It’s really going to be a platform for us to start different science studies that we couldn’t do from the surface of Earth,” said Keith Tauscher, a physics graduate student.

Tauscher is working on a lunar orbiter designed to take advantage of the radio silence of the far side of the moon to discover when the first stars and black-holes formed during the formation of the universe. “The lab has dubbed this mission ‘the Dark Ages Polarimeter Pathfinder, or “DAPPER.’ ”

The work in Boulder and elsewhere underscores NASA’s plan to build a lasting presence on the moon, unlike the fleeting Apollo missions in the 1960s and ’70s.

Vice President Mike Pence in March announced an accelerated timeline to put humans on the moon in 2024 “by any means necessary,” cutting the agency’s previous 2028 goal in half and putting researchers and companies into overdrive in the new space race.

The Americans are not alone in their latest moon quest, unlike a half-century ago. In January, the China National Space Administration landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, with a long-term aim of building a base on the moon. India was scheduled to send a rover to the moon this month.

Another key difference between the Apollo program and the Artemis program, as NASA chief Jim Bridenstine named the new lunar initiative in May, is bringing in help from commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Those companies are working to slash the cost of rocket launches with a longer-term ambition of doing their own projects on the moon and eventually Mars.

“It’s a new way of operating in which the private sector is intimately entangled with NASA,” Burns said.

He predicts that in roughly 20 years, the moon will be dotted with inflatable hotels for deep-pocketed tourists and mining sites where robotic drills dig under the moon’s south pole for frozen water that can be synthesized into rocket fuel for missions back to Earth or further out to Mars.

 

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Dan Grebler)

Quakes show that moon, gradually shrinking, is tectonically active

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The moon may be dynamic and tectonically active like Earth – not the inert world some scientists had believed it to be – based on a new analysis disclosed on Monday of quakes measured by seismometers in operation on the moon from 1969 and 1977.

Researchers examining the seismic data gathered during NASA’s Apollo missions traced the location of some of the quakes to step-shaped cliffs called scarps on the lunar surface that formed relatively recently, in geological terms, due to the ongoing subtle shrinking of the moon as its hot interior cools.

“It means that the moon has somehow managed to remain tectonically active after 4.51 billion years,” said Smithsonian Institution planetary scientist Thomas Watters, who led the research published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Earth’s tectonic activity is driven by its hot interior. The moon, which orbits our planet at a distance of about 239,000 miles (385,000 km), has a diameter of about 2,160 miles (3,475 km), a bit more than a quarter of Earth’s diameter.

Images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter showed that the moon has delicately shriveled as its interior has cooled over the eons, akin to a plump grape transforming into a smaller raisin. As a result, it has acquired thousands of small surface wrinkles in the form of surface features called thrust fault scarps.

These faults push one part of the lunar crust up and over the adjoining part, said University of Maryland geologist and study co-author Nicholas Schmerr. They can reach up to about 330 feet (100 meters) tall and extend for many miles.

“This is exciting as it wasn’t clear if the moon had already gone through this period billions of years ago and was tectonically dead, or if it was still active in the present,” Schmerr said.

U.S. astronauts placed seismometers on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15 and 16 missions, recording 28 shallow quakes up to almost 5 magnitude, which is moderate strength. Eight quakes occurred close to faults. Other events such as meteorite impacts can produce quakes, but those would produce different seismic signatures.

Boulder movements and disturbed soil near the scarps also indicated tectonic activity.

Watters said experts must be mindful that quakes may strike near these scarps when planning sites for future lunar exploration and a long-term human presence on the moon.

The moon is not the solar system’s only object shrinking with age. The innermost planet Mercury boasts numerous thrust faults.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

On Saturn’s moon Titan, plentiful lakeside views, but with liquid methane

Ligeia Mare, the second largest known body of liquid on Saturn's moon Titan, shown in data obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, is pictured in this NASA handout image released January 17, 2018. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Scientists on Monday provided the most comprehensive look to date at one of the solar system’s most exotic features: prime lakeside property in the northern polar region of Saturn’s moon Titan – if you like lakes made of stuff like liquid methane.

Using data obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft before that mission ended in 2017 with a deliberate plunge into Saturn, the scientists found that some of frigid Titan’s lakes of liquid hydrocarbons in this region are surprisingly deep while others may be shallow and seasonal.

Titan and Earth are the solar system’s two places with standing bodies of liquid on the surface. Titan boasts lakes, rivers and seas of hydrocarbons: compounds of hydrogen and carbon like those that are the main components of petroleum and natural gas.

The researchers described landforms akin to mesas towering above the nearby landscape, topped with liquid lakes more than 300 feet (100 meters) deep comprised mainly of methane. The scientists suspect the lakes formed when surrounding bedrock chemically dissolved and collapsed, a process that occurs with a certain type of lake on Earth.

The scientists also described “phantom lakes” that during wintertime appeared to be wide but shallow ponds – perhaps only a few inches (cm) deep – but evaporated or drained into the surface by springtime, a process taking seven years on Titan.

The findings represented further evidence about Titan’s hydrological cycle, with liquid hydrocarbons raining down from clouds, flowing across its surface and evaporating back into the sky. This is comparable to Earth’s water cycle.

Because of Titan’s complex chemistry and distinctive environments, scientists suspect it potentially could harbor life, in particular in its subsurface ocean of water, but possibly in the surface bodies of liquid hydrocarbons.

“Titan is a very fascinating object in the solar system, and every time we look carefully at the data we find out something new,” California Institute of Technology planetary scientist Marco Mastrogiuseppe said.

Titan, with a diameter of 3,200 miles (5,150 km), is the solar system’s second largest moon, behind only Jupiter’s Ganymede. It is bigger than the planet Mercury.

“Titan is the most Earth-like body in the solar system. It has lakes, canyons, rivers, dune fields of organic sand particles about the same size as silica sand grains on Earth,” Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory planetary scientist Shannon MacKenzie said.

The research was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

NASA space probe ‘phones home’ in landmark mission to solar system’s edge

New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is seen before a news conference after the team received confirmation from the New Horizons spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Ultima Thule, January 1, 2019 at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, U.S., January 1, 2019. NASA/Joel KowskyHandout via REUTERS.

By Joey Roulette

(Reuters) – NASA’s New Horizons explorer successfully “phoned home” on Tuesday after a journey to the most distant world ever explored by humankind, a frozen rock at the edge of the solar system that scientists hope will uncover secrets to its creation.

The nuclear-powered space probe has traveled 4 billion miles (6.4 billion km) to come within 2,200 miles (3,540 km) of Ultima Thule, an apparently peanut-shaped, 20-mile-long (32-km-long) space rock in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt. The belt is a ring of icy celestial bodies just outside Neptune’s orbit.

Engineers at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland cheered when the spacecraft’s first signals came through the National Aeronautic and Space Agency’s Deep Space Network at 10:28 a.m. EST (1528 GMT).

“We have a healthy spacecraft,” Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman declared.

The spacecraft will ping back more detailed images and data from Thule in the coming days, NASA said.

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on its 4 billion-mile journey toward the solar system’s edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.

“Last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told a news conference at the Johns Hopkins facility in Laurel, Maryland.

An image of Thule, sent overnight and barely more detailed than previous images, deepens the mystery of whether Thule is a single rock shaped like an asymmetrical peanut or actually two rocks orbiting each other, “blurred together because of their proximity,” Stern said.

During a 2015 fly-by, the probe found Pluto to be slightly larger than previously thought. In March, it revealed methane-rich dunes on the icy dwarf planet&rsquo’s surface.

Now 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto for its second mission into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will study the makeup of Ultima Thule’s atmosphere and terrain in a months-long study to seek clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets.

Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched, according to NASA, making the mission unique in that respect. In 2014, astronomers found Thule using the Hubble Space Telescope and the following year selected it for New Horizon’s extended mission.

As the probe flies 2,200 miles (3,540 km) above Thule’s surface, scientists hope it will detect the chemical composition of its atmosphere and terrain in what NASA says will be the closest observation of a body so remote.

“We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we’ll know how we did,” Stern told reporters on Monday. “There are no second chances for New Horizons.”

While the mission marks the farthest close encounter of an object within our solar system, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2, a pair of deep-space probes launched in 1977, have reached greater distances on a mission to survey extrasolar bodies. Both probes are still operational.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Jonathan Oatis)