Wednesday, March 27, 2019

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft signals successful flyby of Ultima Thule

  • >> Kenneth Chang, The New York Times  
    Published: 2019-01-02 00:57:50 BdST

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An artist’s rendition of the icy world known as Ultima Thule, as seen at the flyby event at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., on Monday night, Dec. 31, 2018. Scientists, engineers and well-wishers gathered to celebrate the moment the NASA spacecraft New Horizons encountered Ultima Thule, an object orbiting one billion miles beyond Pluto. (Matt Roth/The New York Times)

Midnight at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory looked like any other New Year’s Eve party around the world. The scientists, engineers and well-wishers in attendance counted down and cheered the start of 2019.

Thirty-three minutes after midnight, scientists, engineers and well-wishers here at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory celebrated the moment that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to a small, icy world nicknamed Ultima Thule.

Almost 10 hours later, the New Horizons team, based at the laboratory, finally received confirmation that the spacecraft had indeed done everything they had asked. In the days and months to come, the mission’s scientists expect to receive pictures of Ultima Thule and scientific data that could shed light on how the sun and planets formed during the solar system’s earliest days.

During the flyby, the spacecraft was busy making scientific observations out of communication. Only hours later did New Horizons turn its antenna toward Earth to send a 15-minute update on its status — no pictures or data from the flyby yet. The message took six hours to travel the 4.1 billion miles at the speed of light to Earth.

At 10:31 a.m., the mission operations centre at Johns Hopkins confirmed that radio dish in Madrid, Spain, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, had locked in to the signal from New Horizons.

“We have a healthy spacecraft,” Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager, announced following a methodical check of the spacecraft’s systems. “We’ve just accomplished the most distant flyby. We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmission.”

Clapping and cheering erupted in the room where the mood had been quiet and nervous a few minutes earlier.

S. Alan Stern, center, New Horizons’ principal investigator, is surrounded by children at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning, Jan. 1, 2019. They were celebrating the moment the NASA spacecraft New Horizons encountered Ultima Thule, an object orbiting one billion miles beyond Pluto. (Matt Roth/The New York Times)

S. Alan Stern, center, New Horizons’ principal investigator, is surrounded by children at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning, Jan. 1, 2019. They were celebrating the moment the NASA spacecraft New Horizons encountered Ultima Thule, an object orbiting one billion miles beyond Pluto. (Matt Roth/The New York Times)

On Monday, the people working on the mission had expressed confidence that everything had gone as planned. “But I’d be kidding you if I didn’t tell you that we’re also on pins and needles to see out how this turns out,” S. Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, had said in a news conference. “We only get one shot at it.”

Tuesday morning, Stern expressed a more jubilant mood on Twitter: “I’m having a pretty good day today. How about you?”

The night before, revellers at the lab, which manages the mission for NASA, celebrated both the start of 2019 and the flyby, and they were treated to Brian May, best known as the lead guitarist of the rock band Queen but also an astrophysicist collaborating with the mission’s science team, introducing a music video of a new song, “New Horizons,” which he wrote for the occasion at the request of Stern.

“New Horizons to explore

“New Horizons no one has ever seen before”

May said he was initially reluctant when Stern asked. “I thought this is going to be hard, because I can’t think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule,” he said.

For most of the rest of his time here, May is working with other scientists. “I’m not here as a celebrity,” he said.

Brian May, best known as the lead guitarist of the rock band Queen but also an astrophysicist collaborating with the mission’s science team, speaks at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning, Jan. 1, 2019. May introduced a music video of a new song, “New Horizons,” which he wrote to celebrate the moment the NASA spacecraft New Horizons encountered Ultima Thule, an object orbiting one billion miles beyond Pluto. (Matt Roth/The New York Times)

Brian May, best known as the lead guitarist of the rock band Queen but also an astrophysicist collaborating with the mission’s science team, speaks at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning, Jan. 1, 2019. May introduced a music video of a new song, “New Horizons,” which he wrote to celebrate the moment the NASA spacecraft New Horizons encountered Ultima Thule, an object orbiting one billion miles beyond Pluto. (Matt Roth/The New York Times)

There was plenty of work to be done. In many ways, this flyby was more difficult than the one for Pluto in 2015, which collected a wealth of fascinating pictures and data. Ultima Thule is about one-100th the diameter of Pluto and far dimmer. While Pluto has been studied for decades, Ultima Thule was discovered only 4 1/2 years ago by the Hubble Space Telescope, and none of the telescopes on Earth have been able to clearly spot it.

Over the next couple of days, preliminary looks at the data, including what the scientists hope will be striking images of Ultima Thule, will be beamed back to Earth. Twenty months will pass before scientists have the full set of measurements. And they will be eagerly awaiting every bit of that stream.

“We are ready to science the heck out of Ultima Thule,” Stern said.

© 2018 New York Times News Service