LAUREL, Md. — A whole lot of well-wishers took half in a unique type of New Year’s countdown, 33 minutes previous midnight, to rejoice the second when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew previous an icy object generally known as Ultima Thule, greater than 4 billion miles away.
The revelers right here at Johns Hopkins College’s Utilized Physics Laboratory didn’t but know for certain whether or not the piano-sized probe truly survived the encounter. Due to the difficult schedule for New Horizons’ observations, plus the 6-hour-plus time it takes for radio indicators to journey from Ultima Thule to NASA’s Deep Area Community, definitive phrase of success (or failure) received’t come till hours in a while New Year’s Day.
Regardless of the uncertainty, tonight’s gathering had lots of the trappings of a New Year’s Eve occasion, together with glowing wine and occasion hats. Mission team members and New Horizons’ followers, plus relations, noshed on hors d’oeuvres and watched displays and performances (including a sing-along in New Horizons’ honor) through the buildup to 12:33 a.m. ET (9:33 p.m. PT Dec. 31).
Simply after midnight, rock-star astrophysicist Brian Might — who has gained fame for his 3-D astronomical imagery in addition to for his riffs as lead guitarist for the rock group Queen — unveiled the full version of a rock anthem he wrote for the occasion.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern stated the mission’s outcomes may rock planetary science to an identical diploma. Tonight’s occasion marked history’s farthest-out encounter with a celestial physique, in an icy outer area of the photo voltaic system generally known as the Kuiper Belt.
“We’re going to change what we all know in regards to the Kuiper Belt actually in a single day,” Stern informed the viewers throughout one of many pre-flyby panel discussions.
The encounter with Ultima Thule (“Ul-ti-ma Too-lee,” from a Latin phrase that principally signifies “a spot past the recognized world”) comes nearly 13 years since New Horizons was launched in 2006, and three and a half years because the probe flew previous Pluto in 2015. The mission team chosen Ultima, whose formal identify is 2014 MU69, after utilizing the Hubble Area Telescope to hunt out targets for an prolonged mission.
Seven scientific devices had been reprogrammed to look at Ultima Thule and its surroundings. Within the hours earlier than the flyby, radio indicators had been beamed from Earth towards the spacecraft in hopes of getting mirrored readings referring to Ultima’s composition. Imagers and spectrometers captured a whole bunch of images because the spacecraft buzzed inside 2,200 miles of the 20-mile-wide agglomeration of ice and rock, at a relative velocity of 32,000 mph. Different devices monitored the photo voltaic wind, energetic particles and dirt concentrations in Ultima’s neighborhood.
Not like Pluto, which is a billion miles nearer in, Ultima Thule is regarded as comparatively unchanged because the formation of the photo voltaic system greater than 4.5 billion years in the past. “It’s in all probability probably the most primitive object ever encountered by a spacecraft,” mission venture scientist Hal Weaver stated upfront of the flyby.
However mission managers acknowledged that they didn’t know precisely what New Horizons would ship again. “Something’s attainable,” deputy venture scientist John Spencer stated.
A extremely processed picture, acquired 37 hours earlier than the flyby, confirmed a fuzzy view of what gave the impression to be an elongated object that’s been in comparison with a peanut. Progressively higher pictures ought to be launched beginning on New Year’s Day.
The New Horizons team is anticipated to obtain a 15-minute “Telephone Dwelling” transmission that reviews the well being of the spacecraft and all its devices at about 10 a.m. ET (7 a.m. PT). That might be adopted by an 11:30 a.m. ET (8:30 a.m. PT) news conference, throughout which team leaders will share findings that had been despatched again to Earth earlier than the time of closest method. These findings ought to embody a processed model of six-pixel imagery that exhibits Ultima’s form extra definitively.
The primary pictures and different science information from the shut flyby itself are to be shared at a information convention on Wednesday, and even higher-fidelity outcomes might be launched on Thursday.
Due to the ability limits for New Horizons’ transmitter, plus the intense distances concerned, the spacecraft might be sending again information at a fee of just one,000 bits per second. New Horizons’ mission managers determine it’ll take 20 months to ship again the roughly 6 gigabytes of science information that the spacecraft ought to have saved in its reminiscence banks through the encounter.
The New Horizons mission is a partnership involving NASA in addition to the Utilized Physics Laboratory, which is in command of mission operations; and the Southwest Regional Institute, which is Stern’s residence establishment. As a result of APL manages the mission on NASA’s behalf, the partial authorities shutdown hasn’t had a significant impression on operations. Nevertheless, NASA representatives on the team both needed to get particular authorization or sit out this week’s proceedings.
One NASA official who did get the go-ahead to participate was Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen, who heads the area company’s Science Mission Directorate. Throughout one in every of tonight’s pre-flyby panels, he famous that NASA was spending $6 billion over the course of a decade on missions focusing on small celestial our bodies, together with Ultima Thule in addition to an assortment of asteroids.
“For me, that’s why I’m right here,” he informed the gang at APL. “To indicate that presence, to essentially be right here for these missions as we do these very difficult maneuvers.”
Zurbuchen might properly have one more mission to juggle: Within the months forward, Stern and his colleagues hope to begin laying plans for one more New Horizons extension, to focus on one other Kuiper Belt object that’s but to be recognized. And one other occasion will little doubt be a part of the plans.