No comments from Dime please. 😀 This documentary has received twelve 5 star reviews. I just posted my 2 star review.
Turns out that some Nest products have built-in microphones, which fact was only recently disclosed to users. The possibilities for abuse are endless. Looks like Bruce Schneier’s predictions, expressed in his book Click Here to Kill Everybody, are coming true. From the book’s blurb:
From driverless cars to smart thermostats, from autonomous stock-trading systems to drones equipped with their own behavioral algorithms, the internet now has direct effects on the physical world. [emphasis added]
Don’t worry, though. Google admits that not disclosing the microphone “…was an error on our part.” Rest assured they are very sorry. You’ve had a hidden microphone in your house but don’t worry; nobody was listening. Move along; nothing to see (or hear).
Here is a short video from Business Insider UK about Alibaba’s robotic warehouse.
Who is Alibaba? According to Wikipedia:
With operations in over 200 countries and territories, Alibaba is the world’s largest retailer and e-commerce company, one of the largest Internet and AI companies, one of the biggest venture capital firms, and one of the biggest investment corporations in the world. The company hosts the largest B2B (Alibaba.com), C2C (Taobao), and B2C (Tmall) marketplaces in the world. Its online sales and profits surpassed all US retailers (including Walmart, Amazon and eBay) combined since 2015. It has been expanding into the media industry, with revenues rising by triple percentage points year on year.
The robots, which can lift up to 500 kg, pick up densely packed bins and bring them to human pickers who place the products in boxes for shipment to customers. The robots are controlled over Wi-Fi. They say that after the 60 robots were placed into service, throughput in the warehouse has been tripled and human labour reduced by 70%.
Amazon has been running a robotics challenge to try to eliminate the human pickers. This is a video summarising the 2017 challenge in Nagoya, Japan.
Here is a video from the MIT team from the 2017 competition.
The Roaring Twenties are 314 days away.
The Cuvier’s beaked whale spend on average two minutes at the surface between dives but can do the following.
From this article.
The new data showed the whales’ deepest dives extend more than 4,500 feet beneath the ocean surface. Deep dives can last two to three hours. The whales dive continuously, with deep dives followed by a few shorter dives, averaging 1,000 feet.
Now I consider that some serious holding of one’s breath. That is some serious pressure. How does not the water get into things? Is blubber really that good at dealing with pressure? Do they close their eyes?
According to Japanese legend, the fish will purposely rise to the surface and beach themselves whenever they believe trouble’s on the way. Residents have reported their presence before the arrivals of tsunamis and earthquakes in the past — including the 2011 Fukushima quake.
During the Great Depression, the Empire State Building was built, from the beginning of foundation excavation to official opening, in 410 days (less than 14 months). After the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, design and construction of its replacement, the new One World Trade Center was completed on November 3, 2014, 4801 days (160 months) later.
In the 1960s, from U.S. president Kennedy’s proposal of a manned lunar mission to the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, 2978 days (almost 100 months) elapsed. In January, 2004, U.S. president Bush announced the “Vision for Space Exploration”, aimed at a human return to the lunar surface by 2020. After a comical series of studies, revisions, cancellations, de-scopings, redesigns, schedule slips, and cost overruns, its successor now plans to launch a lunar flyby mission (not even a lunar orbit like Apollo 8) in June 2022, 224 months later. A lunar landing is planned for no sooner than 2028, almost 300 months after the “vision”, and almost nobody believes that date (the landing craft design has not yet begun, and there is no funding for it in the budget).
Wherever you look: junk science, universities corrupted with bogus “studies” departments, politicians peddling discredited nostrums a moment’s critical thinking reveals to be folly, an economy built upon an ever-increasing tower of debt that nobody really believes is ever going to be paid off, and the dearth of major, genuine innovations (as opposed to incremental refinement of existing technologies, as has driven the computing, communications, and information technology industries) in every field: science, technology, public policy, and the arts, it often seems like the world is getting dumber. What if it really is?
That is the thesis explored by this insightful book, which is packed with enough “hate facts” to detonate the head of any bien pensant academic or politician. I define a “hate fact” as something which is indisputably true, well-documented by evidence in the literature, which has not been contradicted, but the citation of which is considered “hateful” and can unleash outrage mobs upon anyone so foolish as to utter the fact in public and be a career-limiting move for those employed in Social Justice Warrior-converged organisations. (An example of a hate fact, unrelated to the topic of this book, is the FBI violent crime statistics broken down by the race of the criminal and victim. Nobody disputes the accuracy of this information or the methodology by which it is collected, but woe betide anyone so foolish as to cite the data or draw the obvious conclusions from it.)
In April 2004 I made my own foray into the question of declining intelligence in “Global IQ: 1950–2050” in which I combined estimates of the mean IQ of countries with census data and forecasts of population growth to estimate global mean IQ for a century starting at 1950. Assuming the mean IQ of countries remains constant (which is optimistic, since part of the population growth in high IQ countries with low fertility rates is due to migration from countries with lower IQ), I found that global mean IQ, which was 91.64 for a population of 2.55 billion in 1950, declined to 89.20 for the 6.07 billion alive in 2000, and was expected to fall to 86.32 for the 9.06 billion population forecast for 2050. This is mostly due to the explosive population growth forecast for Sub-Saharan Africa, where many of the populations with low IQ reside.
This is a particularly dismaying prospect, because there is no evidence for sustained consensual self-government in nations with a mean IQ less than 90.
But while I was examining global trends assuming national IQ remains constant, in the present book the authors explore the provocative question of whether the population of today’s developed nations is becoming dumber due to the inexorable action of natural selection on whatever genes determine intelligence. The argument is relatively simple, but based upon a number of pillars, each of which is a “hate fact”, although non-controversial among those who study these matters in detail.
- There is a factor, “general intelligence” or g, which measures the ability to solve a wide variety of mental problems, and this factor, measured by IQ tests, is largely stable across an individual’s life.
- Intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, is, like height, in part heritable. The heritability of IQ is estimated at around 80%, which means that 80% of children’s IQ can be estimated from that of their parents, and 20% is due to other factors.
- IQ correlates positively with factors contributing to success in society. The correlation with performance in education is 0.7, with highest educational level completed 0.5, and with salary 0.3.
- In Europe, between 1400 and around 1850, the wealthier half of the population had more children who survived to adulthood than the poorer half.
- Because IQ correlates with social success, that portion of the population which was more intelligent produced more offspring.
- Just as in selective breeding of animals by selecting those with a desired trait for mating, this resulted in a population whose average IQ increased (slowly) from generation to generation over this half-millennium.
The gradually rising IQ of the population resulted in a growing standard of living as knowledge and inventions accumulated due to the efforts of those with greater intelligence over time. In particular, even a relatively small increase in the mean IQ of a population makes an enormous difference in the tiny fraction of people with “genius level” IQ who are responsible for many of the significant breakthroughs in all forms of human intellectual endeavour. If we consider an IQ of 145 as genius level, in a population of a million with a mean IQ of 100, one in 741 people will have an IQ of 145 or above, so there will be around 1350 people with such an IQ. But if the population’s mean IQ is 95, just five points lower, only one in 2331 people will have a genius level IQ, and there will be just 429 potential geniuses in the population of a million. In a population of a million with a mean IQ of 90, there will be just 123 potential geniuses.
(Some technical details are in order. A high IQ [generally 125 or above] appears to be a necessary condition for genius-level achievement, but it is insufficient by itself. Those who produce feats of genius usually combine high intelligence with persistence, ambition, often a single-minded focus on a task, and usually require an environment which allows them to acquire the knowledge and intellectual tools required to apply their talent. But since a high IQ is a requirement, the mean IQ determines what fraction of the population are potential geniuses; other factors such as the society’s educational institutions, resources such as libraries, and wealth which allows some people to concentrate on intellectual endeavours instead of manual labour, contribute to how many actual works of genius will be produced. The mean IQ of most Western industrial nations is around 100, and the standard deviation of IQ is normalised to be 15. Using this information you can perform calculations such as those in the previous paragraph using Fourmilab’s z Score Calculator, as explained in my Introduction to Probability and Statistics.)
Of the pillars of the argument listed above, items 1 through 3 are noncontroversial except by those who deny the existence of general intelligence entirely or the ability of IQ tests to measure it. The authors present the large body of highly persuasive evidence in favour of those items in a form accessible to the non-specialist. If you reject that evidence, then you needn’t consider the rest of the argument.
Item 4, the assertion that wealthier families had more children survive to adulthood, is substantiated by a variety of research, much of it done in England, where recorded wills and church records of baptisms and deaths provide centuries of demographic data. One study, for example, examining wills filed between 1585 and 1638 in Suffolk and Essex found that the richer half of estates (determined by the bequests in the wills) had almost twice as many children named in wills compared to the poorer half. An investigation of records in Norfolk covering the years 1500 to 1630 found an average of four children for middle class families as opposed to two for the lower class. Another, covering Saxony in Germany between 1547 and 1671, found the middle class had an average of 3.4 children who survived to become married, while the working class had just 1.6. This differential fertility seems, in conjunction with item 5, the known correlation between intelligence and social success, to make plausible that a process of selection for intelligence was going on, and probably had been for centuries. (Records are sparse before the 17th century, so detailed research for that period is difficult.)
Another form of selection got underway as the middle ages gave way to the early modern period around the year 1500 in Europe. While in medieval times criminals were rarely executed due to opposition by the Church, by the early modern era almost all felonies received the death penalty. This had the effect of “culling the herd” of its most violent members who, being predominantly young, male, and of low intelligence, would often be removed from the breeding population before fathering any children. To the extent that the propensity to violent crime is heritable (which seems plausible, as almost all human characteristics are heritable to one degree or another), this would have “domesticated” the European human population and contributed to the well-documented dramatic drop in the murder rate in this period. It would have also selected out those of low intelligence, who are prone to violent crime. Further, in England, there was a provision called “Benefit of Clergy” where those who could demonstrate literacy could escape the hangman. This was another selection for intelligence.
If intelligence was gradually increasing in Europe from the middle ages through the time of the Industrial Revolution, can we find evidence of this in history? Obviously, we don’t have IQ tests from that period, but there are other suggestive indications. Intelligent people have lower time preference: they are willing to defer immediate gratification for a reward in the future. The rate of interest on borrowed money is a measure of a society’s overall time preference. Data covering the period from 1150 through 1950 found that interest rates had declined over the entire time, from over 10% in the year 1200 to around 5% in the 1800s. This is consistent with an increase in intelligence.
Literacy correlates with intelligence, and records from marriage registers and court documents show continually growing literacy from 1580 through 1920. In the latter part of this period, the introduction of government schools contributed to much of the increase, but in early years it may reflect growing intelligence.
A population with growing intelligence should produce more geniuses who make contributions which are recorded in history. In a 2005 study, American physicist Jonathan Huebner compiled a list of 8,583 significant events in the history of science and technology from the Stone Age through 2004. He found that, after adjusting for the total population of the time, the rate of innovation per capita had quadrupled between 1450 and 1870. Independently, Charles Murray’s 2003 book Human Accomplishment found that the rate of innovation and the appearance of the figures who created them increased from the Middle Ages through the 1870s.
The authors contend that a growing population with increasing mean intelligence eventually reached a critical mass which led to the industrial revolution, due to a sufficiently large number of genius intellects alive at the same time and an intelligent workforce who could perform the jobs needed to build and operate the new machines. This created unprecedented prosperity and dramatically increased the standard of living throughout the society.
And then an interesting thing happened. It’s called the “demographic transition”, and it’s been observed in country after country as it develops from a rural, agrarian economy to an urban, industrial society. Pre-industrial societies are characterised by a high birth rate, a high rate of infant and childhood mortality, and a stable or very slowly growing population. Families have many children in the hope of having a few survive to adulthood to care for them in old age and pass on their parents’ genes. It is in this phase that the intense selection pressure obtains: the better-off and presumably more intelligent parents will have more children survive to adulthood.
Once industrialisation begins, it is usually accompanied by public health measures, better sanitation, improved access to medical care, and the introduction of innovations such as vaccination, antiseptics, and surgery with anæsthesia. This results in a dramatic fall in the mortality rate for the young, larger families, and an immediate bulge in the population. As social welfare benefits are extended to reach the poor through benefits from employers, charity, or government services, this occurs more broadly across social classes, reducing the disparity in family sizes among the rich and poor.
Eventually, parents begin to see the advantage of smaller families now that they can be confident their offspring have a high probability of surviving to adulthood. This is particularly the case for the better-off, as they realise their progeny will gain an advantage by splitting their inheritance fewer ways and in receiving the better education a family can afford for fewer children. This results in a decline in the birth rate, which eventually reaches the replacement rate (or below), where it comes into line with the death rate.
But what does this do to the selection for intelligence from which humans have been benefitting for centuries? It ends it, and eventually puts it into reverse. In country after country, the better educated and well-off (both correlates of intelligence) have fewer children than the less intelligent. This is easy to understand: in the prime child-bearing years they tend to be occupied with their education and starting a career. They marry later, have children (if at all) at an older age, and due to the female biological clock, have fewer kids even if they desire more. They also use contraception to plan their families and tend to defer having children until the “right time”, which sometimes never comes.
Meanwhile, the less intelligent, who in the modern welfare state are often clients on the public dole, who have less impulse control, high time preference, and when they use contraception often do so improperly resulting in unplanned pregnancies, have more children. They start earlier, don’t bother with getting married (as the stigma of single motherhood has largely been eliminated), and rely upon the state to feed, house, educate, and eventually imprison their progeny. This sad reality was hilariously mocked in the introduction to the 2006 film Idiocracy.
While this makes for a funny movie, if the population is really getting dumber, it will have profound implications for the future. There will not just be a falling general level of intelligence but far fewer of the genius-level intellects who drive innovation in science, the arts, and the economy. Further, societies which reach the point where this decline sets in well before others that have industrialised more recently will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage across the board. (U.S. and Europe, I’m talking about China, Korea, and [to a lesser extent] Japan.)
If you’ve followed the intelligence issue, about now you probably have steam coming out your ears waiting to ask, “But what about the Flynn effect?” IQ tests are usually “normed” to preserve the same mean and standard deviation (100 and 15 in the U.S. and Britain) over the years. James Flynn discovered that, in fact, measured by standardised tests which were not re-normed, measured IQ had rapidly increased in the 20th century in many countries around the world. The increases were sometimes breathtaking: on the standardised Raven’s Progressive Matrices test (a nonverbal test considered to have little cultural bias), the scores of British schoolchildren increased by 14 IQ points—almost a full standard deviation—between 1942 and 2008. In the U.S., IQ scores seemed to be rising by around three points per decade, which would imply that people a hundred years ago were two standard deviations more stupid that those today, at the threshold of retardation. The slightest grasp of history (which, sadly many people today lack) will show how absurd such a supposition is.
What’s going on, then? The authors join James Flynn in concluding that what we’re seeing is an increase in the population’s proficiency in taking IQ tests, not an actual increase in general intelligence (g). Over time, children are exposed to more and more standardised tests and tasks which require the skills tested by IQ tests and, if practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes better, and with more exposure to media of all kinds, skills of memorisation, manipulation of symbols, and spatial perception will increase. These are correlates of g which IQ tests measure, but what we’re seeing may be specific skills which do not correlate with g itself. If this be the case, then eventually we should see the overall decline in general intelligence overtake the Flynn effect and result in a downturn in IQ scores. And this is precisely what appears to be happening.
Norway, Sweden, and Finland have almost universal male military service and give conscripts a standardised IQ test when they report for training. This provides a large database, starting in 1950, of men in these countries, updated yearly. What is seen is an increase in IQ as expected from the Flynn effect from the start of the records in 1950 through 1997, when the scores topped out and began to decline. In Norway, the decline since 1997 was 0.38 points per decade, while in Denmark it was 2.7 points per decade. Similar declines have been seen in Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Australia. (Note that this decline may be due to causes other than decreasing intelligence of the original population. Immigration from lower-IQ countries will also contribute to decreases in the mean score of the cohorts tested. But the consequences for countries with falling IQ may be the same regardless of the cause.)
There are other correlates of general intelligence which have little of the cultural bias of which some accuse IQ tests. They are largely based upon the assumption that g is something akin to the CPU clock speed of a computer: the ability of the brain to perform basic tasks. These include simple reaction time (how quickly can you push a button, for example, when a light comes on), the ability to discriminate among similar colours, the use of uncommon words, and the ability to repeat a sequence of digits in reverse order. All of these measures (albeit often from very sparse data sets) are consistent with increasing general intelligence in Europe up to some time in the 19th century and a decline ever since.
If this is true, what does it mean for our civilisation? The authors contend that there is an inevitable cycle in the rise and fall of civilisations which has been seen many times in history. A society starts out with a low standard of living, high birth and death rates, and strong selection for intelligence. This increases the mean general intelligence of the population and, much faster, the fraction of genius level intellects. These contribute to a growth in the standard of living in the society, better conditions for the poor, and eventually a degree of prosperity which reduces the infant and childhood death rate. Eventually, the birth rate falls, starting with the more intelligent and better off portion of the population. The birth rate falls to or below replacement, with a higher fraction of births now from less intelligent parents. Mean IQ and the fraction of geniuses falls, the society falls into stagnation and decline, and usually ends up being conquered or supplanted by a younger civilisation still on the rising part of the intelligence curve. They argue that this pattern can be seen in the histories of Rome, Islamic civilisation, and classical China.
And for the West—are we doomed to idiocracy? Well, there may be some possible escapes or technological fixes. We may discover the collection of genes responsible for the hereditary transmission of intelligence and develop interventions to select for them in the population. (Think this crosses the “ick factor”? What parent would look askance at a pill which gave their child an IQ boost of 15 points? What government wouldn’t make these pills available to all their citizens purely on the basis of international competitiveness?) We may send some tiny fraction of our population to Mars, space habitats, or other challenging environments where they will be re-subjected to intense selection for intelligence and breed a successor society (doubtless very different from our own) which will start again at the beginning of the eternal cycle. We may have a religious revival (they happen when you least expect them), which puts an end to the cult of pessimism, decline, and death and restores belief in large families and, with it, the selection for intelligence. (Some may look at Joseph Smith as a prototype of this, but so far the impact of his religion has been on the margins outside areas where believers congregate.) Perhaps some of our increasingly sparse population of geniuses will figure out artificial general intelligence and our mind children will slip the surly bonds of biology and its tedious eternal return to stupidity. We might embrace the decline but vow to preserve everything we’ve learned as a bequest to our successors: stored in multiple locations in ways the next Enlightenment centuries hence can build upon, just as scholars in the Renaissance rediscovered the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Or, maybe we won’t. In which case, “Winter has come and it’s only going to get colder. Wrap up warm.”
Dutton, Edward and Michael A. Woodley of Menie. At Our Wits’ End. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2018. ISBN 978-1-84540-985-2.
Here is a James Delingpole interview of the authors and discussion of the book.
During the recent lunar eclipse (the date on which it occurred depends upon your time zone: mid-eclipse was at 05:12 UTC on 2019-01-21, while the eclipse occurred on the evening of January 20th in western hemisphere time zones) several amateur astronomers capturing the eclipse on video observed a flash of light, just a single video frame, near the limb of the eclipsed Moon just at the beginning of the umbral phase.
The fact that three observers in different locations have so far reported the same flash excludes other explanations such as a reflection off an Earth satellite or a “point meteor” burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere on a trajectory pointed directly at the observer.
This is not the first time an impact has been observed on the Moon. A number of observers monitor the dark portion of the Moon for flashes of impacts, some using both infrared and visual sensors. An infrared sensor can observe the afterglow of the impact and provide an estimate of the energy released by the event. Follow-up observations by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have, on several occasions, found the fresh craters created by observed impacts. This is, however, the first impact observed during a lunar eclipse. This has no scientific significance whatsoever, but it’s cool. The people who saw it were the first humans ever to witness such an event. I’ve observed another event never seen by a human before the day I spotted it, and it’s something I’ll long remember.
Here is a video by Scott Manley about the event and other observations of lunar meteor impacts.
a dial telephone? Remember those?
I would like to start a discussion about flying cars. I saw this article on Instapundit.com about Bell producing a model using six tilted fans.
What do you think the flying car will look like?
What power will it use?
Will they have pilots or fly themselves?
My guess is that they will be electrically powered and look like drones. I think we will see some in the next five years. I think they will be without pilots in order to be economical.
I got to thinking. [Insert joke by DocLor or RichE] Oh, I was thinking about robots. I don’t have human looking robots but I have a few things that do what I tell it to do by a push of a button. I also came to the conclusion that the off timer or off sensor has made all the difference in the world. Starting a machine is easy. Telling it to stop when you are not around made it a one button process.
I take these “robots” for granted. I don’t pay them. One of the simplest is the little pot that boils my hot water for me. Fill it, push a button, and wait. The other is the microwave that weighs my food then sets the time to reheat it. I think one of the earliest “robots” in my life was a pop-up toaster. Press down and pop goes the golden brown. Funny I never see pop-up toasters in Japan. It is toaster ovens. (Counter space is at a premium so multi-functional is a must.)
I think the only thing in my life that has advertised as a robot is my Roomba vacuum cleaner. Poor Rosie the robot got replaced by a low curvy model with no apron.
How about you what robot do you have in your life? I believe an ActiFry counts.
At 02:26 UTC on 2019-01-03, the Chinese Chang’e 4 (嫦娥四号) soft lander and rover touched down in the Von Kármán crater on the far side of the Moon. This is the first soft landing on the far side of the Moon, which is never visible from the Earth. Here is a video including animation of the landing and actual images captured during the descent and of the surface after landing.
The lander carries a rover and a number of experiments. It was originally built as a back-up to the Chang’e 3 lander and rover which landed on the near side of the Moon on December 14th, 2013, becoming the first spacecraft to soft land on the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976.
The major challenge in exploring the far side of the Moon is communicating with Earth. You can’t transmit radio signals through the Moon, so the only way to provide a direct communications link is to place a relay satellite in a “halo orbit” around the Earth-Moon Lagrangian point 2 (L2). On 2018-05-20, the Queqiao (鹊桥) satellite was launched into such an orbit (the first such relay established at the Moon). It was only after this relay was checked out that Chang’e 4 was launched on 2018-12-07.
The landing site at 177.6° E, 45.5° S on the floor of Von Kármán crater, is a relatively flat and uncratered area, relatively easy to get into compared to the rugged highlands of much of the Moon’s far side. Here is a synthetic image of the landing site from Earth and Moon Viewer, seen from 500 km above the Moon, with an “x” indicating the reported touchdown point.
Here is an image of the Moon’s far side returned by the lander.
Colour in this image should be taken cum grano salis. The Moon is a pretty uniform dark grey colour, although the shade may appear different depending upon the Sun angle. This picture was taken right after landing, and the camera’s white balance may not have yet been calibrated.
In addition to cameras on the lander and rover (which has not yet been deployed), there are instruments to study the solar wind and its interaction with the lunar surface, the composition of the surface, and a ground penetrating radar to explore the sub-surface. The lander carries a sealed “biosphere” with seeds of potatoes, Arabidopsis, and silkworm eggs, with a camera to monitor growth. One hopes that the silkworm experiment will end better than the introduction of the gypsy moth into North America in 1868.
You may hear reports in the legacy media that Chang’e 4 landed “near the Moon’s south pole”—this is nonsense. Von Kármán crater is at latitude 45.5° S, half way between the equator and south pole; it is no closer to the lunar south pole than Portland, Oregon is to Earth’s north pole. The confusion is due to the landing site being within the South Pole-Aitken basin, an enormous (2500 km diameter) impact crater on the lunar far side. Because the basin is so huge, it extends from the south pole to half way to the equator.
In January 2006 the New Horizons spacecraft was launched to explore Pluto and its moons and, if all went well, proceed onward to another object in the Kuiper Belt of the outer solar system, Pluto being one of the largest, closest, and best known members. New Horizons was the first spacecraft launched from Earth directly on a solar system escape (interstellar) trajectory (the Pioneer and Voyager probes had earlier escaped the solar system, but only with the help of gravity assists from Jupiter and Saturn). It was launched from Earth with such velocity (16.26 km/sec) that it passed the Moon’s orbit in just nine hours, a distance that took the Apollo missions three days to traverse.
In February 2007, New Horizons flew by Jupiter at a distance of 2.3 million km, using the planet’s gravity to increase its speed to 23 km/sec, thereby knocking three years off its transit time to Pluto. While passing through the Jupiter system, it used its instruments to photograph the planet and its moons. There were no further encounters with solar system objects until arrival at Pluto in 2015, and the spacecraft spent most of its time in hibernation, with most systems powered down to extend their lives, reduce staffing requirements for the support team on Earth, and free up the NASA Deep Space Network to support other missions.
As New Horizons approached Pluto, selection of possible targets for a post-Pluto extended mission became a priority. In orbital mechanics, what matters isn’t so much distance and speed but rather “delta-v”: the change in velocity needed to divert the trajectory of a spacecraft from where it is currently headed to where you want it to go. For chemical rockets, like the thrusters on New Horizons, this depends entirely on how much propellant is on board, and this resource would be scarce after expending what was required for the Pluto mission. New Horizons was launched with propellant to provide 290 metres/sec delta-v, but most of this would be used in course corrections en route to Pluto and maneuvers during the Pluto encounter (the scientific instruments are fixed to the spacecraft structure, which must be turned by firing the thrusters to aim them at their targets.) Starting in 2011, an observing campaign using large Earth-based telescopes began searching for objects in the Kuiper belt which might be suitable targets for New Horizons after Pluto. These objects are extraordinarily difficult to observe: they are more than four billion kilometres from Earth, small, and mostly very dark, and thus visible only with the largest telescopes with long exposure times under perfectly clear and dark skies. To make things worse, as it happens, during this time Pluto’s orbit took it past some of the densest star fields of the Milky Way, near the centre of the galaxy in the constellation of Sagittarius, so the search was cluttered with myriad background stars. A total of 143 new Kuiper belt objects were discovered by this search, but none was reachable with the 33 kg of hydrazine monopropellant expected to remain after the Pluto encounter.
It was time to bring a bigger hammer to the job, and in June 2014, time on the Hubble Space Telescope was assigned to the search. By October of that year three potential targets, all too faint to spot with ground-based telescopes, had been identified and called, imaginatively, potential targets PT1, PT2, and PT3. The course change to get to PT1 would use only around 35% of New Horizons‘ remaining fuel, while the others were more difficult to reach (and thus less probable to result in a successful mission). PT1 was chosen, and subsequently re-named “2014 MU69”, along with its minor planet number of 486958. Subsequently, a “public outreach” effort by NASA chose the nickname “Ultima Thule”, which means a distant place beyond the known world. A recommendation for an official name will not be made until New Horizons reveals its properties.
The fly-by of Pluto in July 2015 was a tremendous success, fulfilling all of its scientific objectives, and in October 2015 New Horizons fired its thrusters for sixteen minutes to change its velocity by 10 metres per second (equivalent to accelerating your car to 22 miles per hour), setting it on course for Ultima Thule. Three subsequent burns would further refine the trajectory and adjust the circumstances of the fly-by. This was the first time in history that a spacecraft was targeted to explore an object which had not been discovered when launched from Earth. After transmitting all the data collected in the Pluto encounter to Earth, which took until October 2016, New Horizons went back into hibernation.
In June 2018, the spacecraft was awakened and in August 2018 it observed its target with its own instruments for the first time. Measurement of its position against the background star field allowed precise determination of the inbound trajectory, which was used in final course correction maneuvers. At the same time, the spacecraft joined Earth-based telescopes and the Hubble in a search for possible moons, rings, or dust around Ultima Thule which might damage the spacecraft on a close approach. Had such hazards been found, the fly-by would have been re-targeted to be at a safer distance, but none was found and the original plan for a fly-by at 3500 km was selected.
Although New Horizons is bearing down on its target at a velocity of 14.4 km/sec, it will remain just a faint dot until hours before closest approach at 05:33 UTC on New Year’s Day, January 1st, 2019. Other than its position, brightness, and colour (reddish), little or nothing is known about the properties of Ultima Thule. We don’t know its size, shape, composition, temperature, rate of rotation, albedo (reflectivity), whether it is one object or two or more in close orbit or in contact, or anything about its history. What is almost certain, however, is that it is nothing like anything in the solar system we’ve explored close-up so far.
Its orbit, unlike that of Pluto, is that of a conventional, well-behaved member of the Sun’s extended family. The orbit, which takes Ultima Thule around the Sun every 296 years, is almost perfectly circular (eccentricity 0.045) and close to the ecliptic (2.45°). (By contrast, Pluto’s orbit has an eccentricity of 0.25 and an inclination to the ecliptic of 17°.) This makes it probable that Ultima Thule has avoided the cosmic billiards game which has perturbed the orbits of so many distant objects in the solar system, making it a “cold classical Kuiper belt object” (the “cold” refers not to temperature but its analogue in dispersion of velocity). What this means is that it is highly probable that this body, unlike the planets and moons of the inner solar system, which have been extensively reprocessed from their original constituents, has been undisturbed since the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago and is a time capsule preserving the raw materials from which the inner planets were assembled.
In 2017, predictions of Ultima Thule’s orbit indicated that it would pass in front of, or occult, a distant star, with the shadow passing through southern Argentina. Since the distance to the object and its speed in orbit are known reasonably well, simply by measuring the duration of the star’s occultation, it is possible to compute the length of the chord of the object’s path in front of the star. Multiple observing stations and precise timings allow estimating an object’s size and shape. A network of twenty-four small telescopes was set up along the expected path (there is substantial uncertainty in the orbit, so not all were expected to see the occultation, but five succeeded in observing it). Combining their results yielded this estimation of Ultima Thule’s size and shape.
The best fit was to a close binary or “contact binary”: two lobes, probably originally separate objects, in contact with one another. What does it actually look like? We’ll have to wait and see. The occultation observations found no evidence for rings, moons, or a dust halo, increasing confidence in the planned close fly-by.
Another mystery which will have to await close-up observation is the absence of a pronounced light curve. An irregularly-shaped object like Ultima Thule would be expected to vary dramatically in brightness as it rotates, but extended observations by Hubble failed to find any variation at all. The best guess is that we’re observing it close to the pole of rotation, but again it’s anybody’s guess until we get there and take a look.
Are we there yet? No, but it won’t be long now. As I noted, the closest fly-by will be at 05:33 UTC on 2019-01-01. Most of the scientific data will be collected in the day before and after the moment of closest approach. Coverage of this event will not be like what you’ve become accustomed to from other space missions. New Horizons will be 6.6 billion kilometres from the Earth at the time of the fly-by, more than 43 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun. It takes light (and radio waves) six hours to travel that distance, so anything transmitted to Earth will take that long to arrive. Further, since the high-gain antenna used to send data back to Earth is fixed to the same spacecraft structure as the scientific instruments, while they are collecting data during the fly-by, the antenna won’t be pointed in the correct direction to send it back to the distant home planet.
After the scientific observations are complete, the antenna will be pointed at the Earth to send “quick look” data, spacecraft health information, and the first images. These are expected later on the first of January and over the next few days. To those accustomed to broadband Internet, these data arrive excruciatingly slowly.
Even with a 70 metre Deep Space Network antenna, the downlink rate is 501 bits per second. If you have a 50 megabit per second broadband Internet connection, this is one hundred thousand times slower: comparable to the dial-up computer terminal (300 bits per second) I used in 1968. It takes around an hour to return a single image, even in the compressed formats used for quick-look data. Downloading all of the science data collected during the fly-by will begin on the 9th of January, when New Horizons returns to spin-stabilised mode (which requires no maneuvering fuel) with its antenna pointed at Earth, and is expected to take twenty months. When the data download is complete, the spacecraft will be placed back into hibernation mode. If another Kuiper belt target is identified which can be reached with the remaining maneuvering fuel before its nuclear power source decays or its distance to Earth becomes too great to return fly-by data (expected in the 2030s), it may be re-targeted for another fly-by.
Coverage of the New Horizons fly-by of Ultima Thule will be broadcast on the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (who built the spacecraft and manages the mission) YouTube channel. Here is a schedule of mission-related programming. This is the mission Web site, with links to resources for the spacecraft and its destination. This article by Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society gives more detail about the encounter, when data and images will be returned, and what we can expect to see when.
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Here is a Science Chat from September 2018 with New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern looking ahead to the encounter with Ultima Thule.
This is a panel discussion at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December 2017 describing the preparations for the encounter with Ultima Thule and what may be learned from the fly-by.