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A Quick Riff on New Horizons

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.


{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Thomas R Mazanec December 5, 2018, 15:06

    When will we find out if there is to be another flyby?

  • Antonio December 5, 2018, 17:39

    How much level of detail will we be able to see from Ultima Thule? (say, meters per pixel, for example).

    • Karl Pestell December 6, 2018, 21:41

      The pixel sizes of the best expected color and gray scale images and infrared spectra will be 330 meters, 140 meters, and 1.8 kilometers respectively. There is a chance of higher resolution grayscale images, with 33 meter pixels, if the high-resolution LORRI camera is able to point accurately at Ultima, but the necessary accuracy isn’t guaranteed.


      • Antonio December 7, 2018, 13:50


      • J. Jason Wentworth December 8, 2018, 9:52

        Might a “tele-upgrade” of New Horizons enable it to obtain higher-resolution pictures than it was designed for (not of Ultima Thule, as there isn’t enough time now, but of any additional Kuiper Belt object(s) it might fly past in the future)? I’m thinking of the autonomous navigation capability, using the spacecraft camera, that Deep Space 1 demonstrated at Comet Borrely in 2001. Also:

        Such “tele-upgrades” are nothing new. Voyager 2’s on-board computer was reprogrammed, years after launch, so that its thrusters could be fired in very short bursts, which enabled it to take longer exposures of Uranus and Neptune and their rings and moons (many of which are quite dark), in the gloom of the outer Solar System. More recently, the Deep Impact “mother” spacecraft was also reprogrammed, facilitating its EPOXI follow-on comet flyby and exoplanet search missions.

        • Karl Pestell December 8, 2018, 20:47

          Good news, Alan Stern and his team have thought of this too:

          It is also possible that another flyby target can be found and reached with the remaining fuel supply. And after that? Another exciting possibility is that we can dramatically augment New Horizons’ capabilities by uploading new observing and onboard data reduction software once its flyby software is no longer needed. If NASA someday approves such a plan, New Horizons could survey the Kuiper Belt population in ways that no other mission or telescope on Earth or in Earth orbit can, and possibly even detect and hunt down its own next flyby target.

          Future New Horizons extended missions, if funded by NASA, could explore even farther out. The spacecraft is on an escape trajectory from the Sun, traveling about 3 Astronomical Units from the Sun per year. Moreover, New Horizons and its payload sensors are healthy and operating perfectly. The spacecraft has enough power and fuel to operate for 15-20 more years, perhaps enough to reach the boundary of interstellar space.


          What we need to do is keep checking their website to convince NASA there is enough interest to keep funding the mission!

  • Robin Datta December 5, 2018, 20:38

    With bated breath of anticipation is awaited the word from afar that more more words are to follow…

  • Scott Guerin December 6, 2018, 12:53

    Paul we all owe you a debt of gratitude for your knowledge, ability to communicate, and willingness to do the hard work day after day…

    Happy Holidays!

    • Paul Gilster December 6, 2018, 14:31

      Why thank you, Scott, and very best wishes for the holidays to you and yours! I hope we’ll get a chance to talk in person again soon.

  • ljk December 10, 2018, 9:53

    Beam Your Greeting to Ultima Thule as New Horizons Flies By On New Year’s 2019!

    Join the First Mission to Explore the Kuiper Belt!

    NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is poised to conduct the farthest planetary flyby ever – an encounter with the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed “Ultima Thule” – on January 1, 2019. Choose a message for the mission team to beam (along with your name) to New Horizons as it speeds past Ultima four billion miles from home. Traveling at light speed, your message will reach the spacecraft about six hours after leaving the satellite communications facility at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Maryland.

    Submissions will be accepted through December 21, 2018.


    Of course those messages are not going to stop once they reach New Horizons. Not sure what that probe would do with them anyway.

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