How Senegal is helping NASA make new discoveries in space

Senegal and Columbia served as ground zero for NASA’s New Horizons space program.

Artist depiction of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering the object beyond Pluto. | NASA


Senegal and Columbia served as ground zero for NASA’s New Horizons space program. It was an opportunity for scientists and science enthusiasts to gaze at the stars in hopes of observing the silhouette cast by an important fragment orbiting beyond Pluto as it passed in front of a bright star, the NY Times reports. The undisturbed fragment is believed to contain information about the dawn of the solar system.

It is about a billion miles past Pluto and a mere 20 miles wide, so not much is known about the object. But with a load of patience and dozens of powerful telescopes placed with extreme precision, scientists were able to capture “five blinks” (about one second) worth of invaluable data.

Risks and Rewards

“This is the farthest exploration of anything in space that has ever taken place, by quite a lot,” said Alan Stern, project leader for NASA’s New Horizons mission. “We are way, way out there.”

“Gathering occultation data is an incredibly difficult task,” said New Horizons occultation event leader Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, who also discovered Ultima Thule about a year before New Horizons flew past Pluto in July 2015.

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“We are literally at the limit of what we can detect with Hubble and the amount of computer processing needed to resolve the data is staggering.”

“Our team of almost 50 researchers using telescopes in Senegal and in Colombia are certainly hoping lightning will strike twice and we’ll see more blips in the stars,” he said.
“This occultation will give us hints about what to expect at Ultima Thule and help us refine our flyby plans.”

Senegal as an Ideal Location

Senegal’s terrain provided for a peaceful place to view the anomaly. Many places in Senegal do not have electricity and there are many rural areas. That made for an ideal environment with a clear sky and minimal light pollution.

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While the skies turned out to be clear, scientists did fear that clouds would block the skies since it’s Senegal’s rainy season, but clear weather prevailed.

“Astronomy is virtually as popular in Africa as it is everywhere in the world,” said David Baratoux, the president of the African Initiative for Planetary Sciences and Space, who is based in France.

Senegal is working on a mission to improve science, technology, engineering and math skills through collaborations with the university system. There is a plan to build a science and research center is planned.