Queen's Brian May joins other astronomers to watch New Horizons flyby

03 January, 2019, 00:43 | Author: Bridget Leonard
  • New Horizons MU69 flyby

A huge spill-over crowd in a nearby auditorium joined in the loud celebration, cheering each green, or good, status update.

The most famous of these tiny outlier worlds - the dwarf planet, Pluto - was visited by New Horizons in 2015, and the Ultima Thule flyby represents the first major achievement of the probe's "extended mission" after that - a milestone made all the more remarkable when you consider Ultima Thule hadn't even been discovered when New Horizons launched back in 2006.

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions".

And New Horizons is a 13-year-old spacecraft; its power generator produces less wattage than it used to, which means operators must carefully prioritize their use of remaining fuel.

Then, as now, the team celebrated while knowing that they had to wait to see if their plucky spacecraft had survived its encounter.

"New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer", said Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Director Ralph Semmel in a statement. The pixelated image does not exclude the possibility that Ultima Thule is really two objects in close proximity or in contact.

Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa.

"We set a record!" The program is a collaborative effort between NASA, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where scientists navigate and control the spacecraft.

"Think about it - we're a billion miles further than Pluto."


He 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.

So what is Ultima Thule? As early as January 1, images and data will be sent back to Earth from New Horizons and its suite of instruments and cameras about seven hours after that closest approach.

The confirmation isn't just a relief for the New Horizons team. Traveling at 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle.

"This is history making what we're doing, in more ways than one, " Stern said.

"Anything is possible out there in this very unknown region", he said. While astronomers on Earth would strain to find another target, it's likely that New Horizons itself could track one down.

The risk added to the excitement.

Lead scientist Alan Stern said Monday the team has worked years for this moment and now, "it's happening!" Because of the government shutdown, which includes NASA, the agency's acting director of planetary science, Lori Glaze was attending as a private citizen and could not speak in her official role. Just 33 minutes into the new year local time, New Horizon's will swoop some 2,200 miles above Ultima, capturing detailed snapshots of the uncharted world.

The highest resolution images are expected in February, Stern said.

Based on images taken during the spacecraft's approach, the Kuiper Belt is approximately 20 by 10 miles shaped similar to a bowling pin andspinning end over end. It is thought to be the shape of a potato and dark in color with a touch of red, the result of being zapped by cosmic rays for eons.

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