The New Horizons team hopes that the telescopes in Senegal and a handful in Colombia, with some assistance from the Hubble Space Telescope, will answer some questions about Ultima Thule, part of the Kuiper belt, before its spacecraft arrives. Is it shaped like a potato, for instance, or is it actually two objects orbiting each other?
Last week, at a late-night dress rehearsal for Saturday’s viewing, Diarra Dieng, an applied physics student in Dakar, tweaked the settings on a $3,500 telescope, guided by a NASA scientist.
“This is amazing,” she said, as she tried to train the telescope on the correct star.
Instructors at Ms. Dieng’s high school in Dakar had encouraged her to pursue studies in science, but she was skeptical at first. “I never knew girls could do this kind of work,” she said.
The New Horizons team had spread across the lawn of a conference center to work out equipment kinks ahead of the viewing. The biggest problem came when someone accidentally turned on the sprinkler system.
The scientists let anyone milling about the nearby parking lot get a view of Saturn and Mars. Students who had studied astronomy through online courses joined a long line. Dads hoisted small children to the eyepiece. The minister of higher education took a peek.
“Mmmmm,” was all one woman could say, shaking her head as if in disbelief.
The higher education minister, Mary Teuw Niane, said he hoped the team’s visit would foster future student collaborations with NASA.
Anne Verbiscer, an astronomy professor at the University of Virginia and part of the New Horizons team, said she valued working with Senegalese students and could relate to overcoming hurdles in pursuing a career in astronomy.