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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to reach icy world at edge of solar system New Year’s Day

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New Horizons, the spacecraft that provided the first glimpse of distant Pluto, is about to shed light on another world, a small icy body 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth.

On New Year’s day at 12:33 a.m. ET, the spacecraft will fly by 2014 MU69, given the informal name Ultima Thule, a 30-kilometre-wide object that is part of the Kuiper Belt. The region is a disk of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. 

It will be one of the most distant regions ever visited by a spacecraft.

“We’re on Ultima’s doorstep,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principle investigator from Southwest Research Institute, a Texas-based non-profit organization. “We’ve never seen any Kuiper Belt object up close. We don’t have any idea of what their geology is like, how evolved they are, how they were constructed, even what they’re made of.”

The spacecraft flew past Pluto, once considered our ninth planet and now considered a dwarf planet and part of the Kuiper Belt, in July 2015. Stern vociferously opposes the decision to reclassify Pluto.

Unravelling its secrets

When New Horizons flew past Pluto — a much larger world  than Ultima Thule at 2,380 km in diameter — it revealed things that planetary scientists could previously only theorize about.

Some of the findings included: Pluto has been geologically active in the recent past; it has a thicker atmosphere than expected (and it’s blue); and it is home to moving nitrogen glaciers and floating ice mountains.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. (NASA)

When New Horizons whips past Ultima Thule at 14 km/s on Jan. 1, it will be just 3,500 kilometres above its surface providing images in much higher resolution than even those taken of Pluto.

Stern is hoping for more surprises.

“We’re going to look for rings. We’re going to look for [moons]. We’re going to see if it has an atmosphere,” Stern said. “So it’s a lot about composition and geology and how the thing was built. How [did] these building blocks of planets get made 4 billion years ago. This is the most well-preserved sample of that era, of planet formation, anyone’s ever been to.”

The only other object has been Pluto but, Stern noted, it has undergone geological evolution so is not preserved at all.

“Ultima is our first and — for now — our only chance to really get at a time capsule of the formation era of the planets,” he said.

Challenges

Getting to a celestial body more than six billion kilometres away and just half the size of Fort McMurray is no easy task.

“Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, so it’s 10,000 times fainter,” Stern said. “This means that it’s much harder to navigate to, to track on and home in on, by a lot.”

After choosing Ultima Thule out of several potential candidates, the Hubble Space Telescope helped scientists track the object so they could fire the engines of New Horizons and change its trajectory. Now that it’s closer, they can track it with the onboard camera.

The image on the left is a composite of 48 images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) showing Ultima Thule amongst the stars. The image on the right shows a magnified image of Ultima Thule after all the background stars are subtracted from the image. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

But tracking it wasn’t the only challenge: because the spacecraft is so distant, there is less light to keep the instruments warm, so they are under more strain. As well, it’s much further away from Earth.

“Communications time has gone from four-and-a-half hours each way to six hours each way. That’s a 12-hour round trip,” Stern said. “We’re playing a chess game where every move takes 12 hours, by remote control with something [6.5 kilometres away] and no backup.”

Stern is excited at the prospect of finding another target to which they can send New Horizons following its visit to Ultima Thule.

“The mission has been an unbelievable experience and a resounding success,” Stern said.

The public is invited to take part in the mission by sending a message to Ultima Thule.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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