DAKAR – An expedition of 40 NASA scientists will camp in the Muslim African country of Senegal this August to plan for the final stage of the historic space mission ‘New Horizons’, SciDev reported on Wednesday, July 11.
After flying past Pluto in 2015, ‘New Horizons’ space probe is now heading to an unprecedented discovery of a minor planet the size of a small city, known as MU69.
To conduct this discovery, NASA has decided to travel to Senegal to exploit a stellar occultation on August 3-4 which will allow the crew to observe MU69 using powerful telescopes.
Stellar occultation is an astronomical phenomenon where a space object is directly lined up with a distant star. Astronomers benefit from the obscured stellar light in discovering and identifying the occulting object by several sophisticated scientific methods.
Senegal was precisely chosen by NASA because of its suitable geographic location which shall permit the crew to observe the awaited occultation for the longest period of time possible on Earth.
The targeted occultation will start at the night of August 3 and will last till the early morning of August 4 before sunrise.
Beside providing valuable data on MU69, the expedition to Senegal also aims to establish links between NASA and 21 prominent Senegalese scientists.
“NASA expedition in Senegal will also strengthen science in the country,” says David Baradoux, the chairman of the African Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences.
The expedition of NASA will reach Senegal before the total lunar eclipse of July 27 to make use of this astronomical phenomenon for public outreach.
In collaboration with a group of eight French astronomers from the French National Centre of Space Research (CNES), NASA will organise training sessions and conferences before the occultation. These events include two nights dedicated to training on occultation observation.
“Now there is one astronomy PhD student in Senegal. By establishing such kinds of collaboration, NASA can offer more opportunities to increase the number of astronomy PhD students,” Baradoux said.
Tech to Senegal
About five tonnes of scientific equipment are being shipped now to Senegal in preparation for the expedition. The equipment include 21 telescopes and astronomical cameras.
The telescopes will be set up at scattered sites across Senegal. “The idea is to find the best place to observe, maybe just 24 hours before the occultation, because we need to deal with the weather — August in Senegal is the beginning of the rainy season so it will be a huge concern to make sure we have a clear sky to make the observations,” Baradoux explained.
“For weather forecast, we work in cooperation with the Senegalese agency for weather forecasting,” he said.
The 21 groups of astronomers that will be scattered all around the country will be at villages with locals around them. “This will be maybe the first time for the children there to see telescopes. They will come and they will be able to share, to discuss with the scientists,” the chairman happily concluded.
“It can be life-changing to participate as a child or as a teenager in such an event. So we’re really hoping that maybe a few, maybe a few tens of children will decide to become scientists after this event.”