We’re starting to get a better view of Ultima Thule, the next destination for the New Horizons spacecraft, which is due to make its flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object also known as 2014 MU69 on New Year’s Eve (0533 UTC January 1) The images below can’t help but recall the gradual approach to Pluto/Charon as New Horizons closed on what turned out to be a spectacularly successful encounter. Here’s hoping Ultima Thule is just as productive in teaching us something about Kuiper Belt Objects in general. Here’s hoping, too, for another KBO flyby down the road.
What we see in the dual images is the view (at the left) through LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager), averaging 10 individual 30-second exposures, with Ultima Thule just barely visible in the yellow circle. The component exposures were taken about a day before a course correction maneuver on December 2 and show Ultima visible against background stars. At the right is the image re-processed to remove the background starfield. Subtracting the star background has left artifacts in the image which should be disregarded.
Image: Ultima Thule as seen at 6.47 billion kilometers (4.01 billion miles) from the Sun and 3.87 million kilometers (2.4 million miles) from the New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
Thus New Horizons keeps giving us firsts, this time the furthest trajectory correction ever made enroute to the furthest flyby of any object in the Solar System ever attempted. The inherent ‘kick’ of space exploration is that sense of pushing ever deeper into a realm that has no boundaries. It’s the same sense I had when Huygens was descending on its parachute into the orange haze of Titan, the furthest landfall in human history. One of these days we’ll have landfalls beyond Titan, but for now, flybys are more than proving their worth.
Richard Feynman knew all about ‘kicks.’ On the matter of honors vs. accomplishment (he won the Nobel in 1965), he had this to say:
“I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.”
I do believe in honors, but I can agree with Feynman that they’re not what people work for. When someone asked me at a conference what drove me to write about space day after day, it was Feynman I quoted. Why else do we pursue passionate interests but for the ‘kick in the discovery?’ For me, learning new things brings the same exuberance I feel when listening to good jazz — Bill Evans or Miles Davis take me into imaginative flybys of realms that in a way parallel what we do with spacecraft and hard, physical objects. A Dexter Gordon solo opens up a sky’s worth of meditations and you don’t know how it will end.
But back to actual hardware. That trajectory correction New Horizons accomplished on Sunday tweaked the spacecraft’s course to keep it on schedule for arrival at Ultima Thule, a flyby at 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) that will take place at 0033 EST (0533 UTC) on Jan. 1. Three other course corrections are built into the game plan if it turns out they are needed. This one, taking place at 0855 EST (1355 UTC) on December 2, was tiny: A 105-second thruster burn that adjusted velocity by a little over 1 meter per second (2.2 miles per hour). We’re 26 days and 17 hours out from Ultima Thule as I write this, with mission elapsed time of 4,702 days.