The stellar occultation by the asteroid Ultima Thule in Senegal – An opportunity for the development of Astronomy in Africa

On the night of August 3rd to 4th, American, Senegalese and French scientists will meet in Senegal to observe a new stellar occultation by MU69, before the flyby of this object by the New Horizons spacecraft (NASA) on January 1st 2019. This Observation campaign is an opportunity to promote scientific culture, and bring science and researchers from the general public around a global astronomical event.

Consult here the list of public activities in relation with the stellar occultation.

Read the CNES-IRD-CNES press release

After the successfully launch on January 19th, 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft (NASA), which provided unprecedented images of Pluto and its moons in 2015, continues its journey to the edges of the Solar System. This probe will make a flyby on January, st, 2019 of the asteroid 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thulé). This object is at a distance of 6 billions of kilometers from the Earth (more than 40 times the Earth-Sun distance).

On June 3rd, 2017, two NASA teams had taken advantage of the asteroid’s passage between the Earth and a distant star, a phenomenon called stellar occultation, to learn more about it. This occultation was visible in Argentina and South Africa. These observations suggest that the celestial body has an elongated shape or could consist of two objects rotating around each other. On the night of August 3-4, a new stellar occultation by MU69 occurs, and will be visible in West and North Africa and part of South America (Colombia). NASA has this time chosen Senegal (and Colombia) to seize the opportunity to gather additional information on this object before the encounter next January. His Excellency Mr. Macky Sall, President of the Republic of Senegal has approved this mission and entrusted the organization and coordination of this activity in Senegal to the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation.

The team of observers in Senegal will be composed of American, Senegalese and French researchers, distributed, in groups of 3, on 21 sites between Thiès, Diourbel, and Louga, in order to measure at different points the duration of the occultation, and to determine the shape of the asteroid. The observer teams will work in close collaboration with scientists from Senegalese universities and research organizations (including ISRA, CSE, ANACIM, and ANAT), and the Senegalese Association for the Promotion of Astronomy (ASPA). The 8 French observers come from the Paris Observatory, the Midi-Pyrénées Observatory (CNRS and IRD), the Aix-Marseille University, and the Cité des Sciences and Industry. Their participation in this mission is supported by the French National Center for Space Studies (CNES) and the ERC (European Research Council) project “Lucky Star” led by Bruno Sicardy.

This event coincides with recent efforts to develop Astronomy in Africa, such as the recent Africa Initiative for Planetary and Space Science, several decades of public events organized in Senegal by the Senegalese Association for the Promotion of Astronomy (ASPA), and existing governmental and private projects to build astronomical observatories in this country.

Several public activities will be organized on this occasion, including a scientific animation around the observation of the lunar eclipse on July 27th, and a conference with NASA and french astronomers at the Auditorium Khaly Amar Fall – University Cheikh Anta Diop (Dakar) on July, 30th. These events are organized with the support of the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation of Senegal, the French Embassy in Senegal, the Research Institute for Development, the Embassy of United States in Senegal and the Uranoscope of France. This event will be an opportunity to establish new collaborations with American and French research centers to pursue and initiate new projects in the field of space, projects useful to the economic and scientific development of Senegal , and more broadly to Africa.

You may consult here the list of these public activities and how to participate.

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