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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft opens new year at tiny, icy world past Pluto

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The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto opened the new year at an even more distant world.

Flight controllers said everything looked good for New Horizons’ flyby of the tiny, icy object at 12:33 a.m. ET Tuesday. Confirmation was not expected for hours, though, given the vast distance.

The mysterious, ancient target nicknamed Ultima Thule is 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth.

Scientists wanted New Horizons observing Ultima Thule during the encounter, not phoning home. So they had to wait until late morning before learning whether the spacecraft survived.

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Instead, hundreds of team members and their guests gathered nearby on campus for back-to-back countdowns.

The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons’ closest approach to Ultima Thule.

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following Tuesday’s official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won’t be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in colour, it is hoped.

Record-setting journey for spacecraft

“We set a record. Never before has a spacecraft explored anything so far away,” said the project’s lead scientist who led the countdown to the close encounter, Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute. “Think of it. We’re a billion miles farther than Pluto.”

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps on the moon in July 1969.

“Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the ‘giant leap’ of Apollo’s lunar missions,” Stern noted in an opinion piece in the New York Times.

‘Never before has a spacecraft explored anything so far away,’ New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said. (Joel Kowsky/NASA via Associated Press)

New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million US mission, was expected to hurtle to within 3,500 km of Ultima Thule, considerably closer than the Pluto encounter of 2015.

Its seven science instruments were to continue collecting data for four hours after the flyby. Then the spacecraft was to turn briefly toward Earth to transmit word of its success. It takes over six hours for radio signals to reach Earth from that far away.

Scientists believe there should be no rings or moons around Ultima Thule that might endanger New Horizons. Traveling at 50,700 kilometres per hour, the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle. It’s a tougher encounter than at Pluto because of the distance and the considerable unknowns, and because the spacecraft is older now.

“I can’t promise you success. We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft,” Stern said at a news conference Monday. “By tomorrow, we’ll know how we did. So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons.”

The risk added to the excitement.

Rock ‘n’ roll icon on hand

Queen guitarist Brian May, who also happens to be an astrophysicist, joined the team at Johns Hopkins for a midnight premiere of the song he wrote for the big event.

“We will never forget this moment,” said May who led the New Years countdown. “This is completely unknown territory.”

Despite the government shutdown, several NASA scientists and other employees showed up at Johns Hopkins as private citizens, unwilling to miss history in the making.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth. It was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope and added to New Horizons’ itinerary.

Just hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima’s shape. The original images have a pixel size of 10 km, not much smaller than Ultima’s estimated size of 30 km, so Ultima is only about three pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

Deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt, a frigid expanse beyond Neptune that is also known as the Twilight Zone, Ultima Thule is believed to date back 4.5 billion years to the formation of our solar system. As such, it is “probably the best time capsule we’ve ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it,” Stern said.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 32 km long, though there’s a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck. It is thought to be potato-shaped and dark-coloured  with a touch of red, possibly from being zapped by cosmic rays for eons.

An artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object as part of a potential extended mission after the Pluto flyby. ( Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The exact shape and composition won’t be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last almost two years.

“Who knows what we might find? … Anything’s possible out there in this very unknown region,” said John Spencer, a deputy project scientist from Southwest Research Institute. “We’ll find out soon enough.”

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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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