In the outer reaches of our stellar neighborhood, an icy, ancient space rock nicknamed Ultima Thule has drifted alone for billions of years, unchanged since the earliest days of the solar system.
On January 1, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft became the first explorer to fly past the mysterious object located some 4 billion miles from Earth.
As most of us caroused and belted out poor renditions of “Auld Lang Syne”, the team at John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) counted down the seconds until their spacecraft would pass its intended target. The closest approach, when New Horizons was just 2,200 miles (about 3,500 kilometers) from the surface of Ultima Thule, occurred at 12:33 a.m. EST Tuesday morning.
As New Horizons passed Ultima, the scenes at APL were reminiscent of New Year’s celebrations the world over, with a countdown before scientists and engineers began cheering and waving US flags. The intrepid robotic explorer, originally launched in January 2006, barreled past the most distant world we’ve yet explored at 32,000 miles per hour — or 9 miles per second.
The spacecraft’s 13-year journey has been filled with firsts, and with the Ultima Thule flyby, NASA achieves another historic moment in the exploration of our solar system.
“Studying this primitive world — which has been around, unaltered, since the beginning of the solar system—will provide us with vital insights into the origins and evolution of our celestial neighborhood,” wrote Alan Stern, principal investigator with the New Horizons team, hours before the climactic flyby.
Earlier in the evening, Queen guitarist Brian May premiered a brand new, stirring-but-somewhat-kitschy song dedicated to New Horizons’ latest endeavor.
“I’ve been absolutely enchanted by the whole thing,” May said during a pre-flyby telecast. “This mission to me represents more than the mission itself, it actually represents to me the spirit of adventure and discovery and inquiry which is inherent in the human spirit.”
Though the team celebrated the moment with cheers, there’s still plenty of work to do. The spacecraft is yet to beam back any data that will show exactly how the mission progressed. Sending that crucial information back to Earth will take approximately six hours and a signal acquisition is scheduled for 9:45 a.m. EST, January 1. Then, as science results begin to trickle in, NASA will hold two press conferences detailing its findings at 2 p.m. EST on January 2 and January 3.
In total, the entire data package will take about 20 months to be sent back to Earth.
Although New Horizons has had the lion’s share of the limelight, another NASA spacecraft performed its own cosmic two-step just hours before, adjusting its thrusters just enough to begin a delicate gravitational dance with potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu.
The Osiris-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) asteroid sampling spacecraft successfully positioned itself in orbit around Bennu at 2:43 p.m. EST on New Year’s Eve. The asteroid explorer will now circle Bennu at a distance of only one mile, the closest a spacecraft has ever been to a celestial body.
Bennu is such a small asteroid that keeping Osiris-Rex safe in its tenuous gravitational grasp will be an on-going challenge, but Monday’s orbital insertion marks another key step in allowing the spacecraft to pluck asteroid dust from Bennu’s surface.
It’s not just a new year, but a new age in space exploration.