How to watch NASA’s New Year’s date with a distant space rock

From The Toronto Star

Sun., Dec. 30, 2018

To ancient explorers, “Ultima Thule” was what lay past the northernmost edges of maps, beyond the borders of the known world.

So when NASA chose a target for its New Horizons spacecraft that was farther than anything explored before, “Ultima Thule” seemed a fitting moniker. The far-flung space rock is an inhabitant of the Kuiper Belt, the ring of debris that encircles the icy outer reaches of solar system.


This artist’s illustration obtained from NASA on December 21, 2018 shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 nicknamed Ultima Thule a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto.  (NASA/AFP/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Ultima Thule is so dim and so distant that scientists aren’t even certain what it looks like. Some of their only information about its size and shape comes from a series of coordinated observations last summer, when astronomers measured the shadow it cast as it passed in front of a star.

But New Horizons will finally fly by its target just after midnight on Jan. 1, taking close-up photographs and sophisticated scientific measurements of what it sees. By the time the first images and data stream back to Earth, the borders of the known world will have expand once more.

“This is just raw exploration,” said Alan Stern, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and the principal investigator for the mission. “No one has ever seen a Kuiper Belt object as anything but a point of light. No one has ever seen an object that’s frozen almost to absolute zero. There are a lot ideas and every one of them might be wrong.”

He took a breath. “We’ll find out Tuesday.”

NASA is celebrating the record-setting encounter with the solar system’s nerdiest New Year’s party. At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft, scientists will count down to the moment of New Horizons’ closest approach, at 12:33 a.m. Eastern, then reconvene 10 hours later to watch first signals from the flyby stream onto their screens. (It takes more than six hours for light to travel from Ultima Thule back to Earth.)

NASA’s vaunted social media operation, which had fallen silent during the partial government shutdown, has been temporarily restored to cover the event. The countdown, signal acquisition and subsequent news conferences will be streamed live on NASA TV and YouTube.

Alice Bowman, New Horizons’ mission operations manager at APL, said the spacecraft entered “encounter mode” on Wednesday. This configuration limits the spacecraft’s communication with Earth, commanding it to quickly address any technical issues on its own, then get back to science. Though nerve-wracking for engineers, encounter mode ensures that New Horizons makes the most of its brief time near Ultima Thule.

“Because this is a flyby, we only get one chance to get it right,” Bowman said.

New Horizons left Earth in January 2006; it was the first mission designed to explore the most distant part of the solar system. Nine years and 3.5 billion miles later, it took the first-ever close up photos of Pluto, revealing a complex and colourful world mottled with methane mountains and a vast, heart-shaped nitrogen ice plain.

After that flyby, Stern and his colleagues set about searching for a new target in the Kuiper Belt, which extends from the edge of Neptune’s orbit out to about 5 billion miles from the sun.

Until the 1990s, no one knew what hid out here, where sunlight is 0.05 as faint as it is on Earth. Now, the Kuiper Belt is thought to include millions of icy objects, unused planetary building blocks left over from the earliest days of the solar system. These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years. NASA says Ultima Thule is likely the most primitive planetary object ever explored.

The Kuiper Belt object was discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Subsequent observations suggest it is small — no more 20 miles across — and peanut shaped. Astronomers believe it is a contact binary, comprising two objects touching each other, or perhaps even a binary system, in which two objects are orbiting one another.

Read the full story here.


39 thoughts on “How to watch NASA’s New Year’s date with a distant space rock

  1. well if they miss Ultima Thule, they might be lucky to accidentally encounter another rock further on, there are after all about 1/4 of million/angular degree of them up to 20km in diameter.

  2. A measure of inference, uniformity, and fidelity. Perhaps science, one day, with patience, and unprecedented development.

  3. The article says, “Until the 1990s, no one knew what hid out here, where sunlight is 0.05 as faint as it is on Earth.”

    I believe that’s off by two orders of magnitude (or they dropped the word “percent”). Light intensity diminishes with the square of the distance. The Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun. Ultima Thule is about 4 billion miles from the son. So the intensity of sunlight there is about (93/4000)**2 = 0.00054 = 0.05% of its intensity on Earth.

    • I see that the WaPo has made the correction (and also corrected “here” to “there”), but most reprints of the article haven’t. The WaPo version now says:

      “Until the 1990s, no one knew what was hiding out there, where sunlight is 0.05 percent as faint as it is on Earth.”

      Oh, and I must still have Christmas on my mind…

      • Yes that’s right, 0.05%. The encounter is about 40 times as far from the Sun as Earth is. One divided by 40 squared, 1/1600, is 1/16th percent or c.0.06%.

        • now work out the relative intensity of the light which comes back to be observed. Now it’s 80 squared !

    • Journalism majors have a difficult time with science, and math even more so. Rough order of magnitude (ROM), mental calculations of ROM of the answer that engineers and hard science sceintists deal with everyday are totally foreign to their brains.
      Journalism majors, being mostly of the liberal mold, have no mental ability, mainly due to their bias, to challenge someone like Michael Bloomberg when says something they want to believe. Bloomberg on Chuck Todd’s Face The Nation Sunday made a ridiculous, off-the-cuff hand wave that the “poles are melting and 3 feet of rain” in the Carolinas proves global warming. NBC talking head Chuck Todd had/has no mathematical, engineering, or science mental ability to understand how badly Bloomberg just lied to him and all his viewers. The same thng happened when Mr Todd interviewed Miss Marvel of NASA and her absurd half-truth about Glacier National Park melting away.

      So the WaPo staff writers are no different. They are not engineer or scientists. They have ability to call bullshit when it slaps them in the face, stink and all. They are without noses or eyes. The LEft is nothing but an Army of Mental Morons.

  4. Somehow , I think this could be momentous . we are definitely “‘going where no one has gone before…” This is science..

  5. Here is what is going to happen. There will be a whole bunch of pictures of a dirty piece of ice. Then NASA will issue a press release that will include the words “We never imagined (insert your own arbitrary meaningless discovery here).” The New York Times and a hundred other so-called news organization will copy NASA’s press release and kwell all over themselves as they try to explain why this is one of the most significant achievements in the history of humankind. And little high school kids all over the world will tweet “isn’t SCIENCE wonderful!”

    God, I’ve seen this movie too many times.

    • Marty, science IS wonderful. To want to send a piece of equipment billions of miles into space testifies to the power of curiosity. To do it testifies to the power of the mind. I’ll cheer them on no matter how often they do it.

    • It’s not the ice that is fascinating, it’s what is in the ice. The exact chemical make up as well as any physical properties of the object itself that can be discerned. All of it can help scientists figure out how the solar system was formed, and from that make better guesses as to how other solar systems may have formed.

    • Ice . . . Yes, dirty ice . . . I remember now. NASA and astronomers told us it’s the stuff comets were made of . . . oh, wait a minute . . .

  6. Just think, if one of these rocks hit the Earth, Globull Warming would seem like a pimple on the backside of a T-Rex…These snowflakes would never survive.

  7. Ultima Thule must have very powerful transmitters and sensitive receivers. Some 3.5 billion miles away the intensity of the signals must about 0.071% of the original power. ( I’m cheating here – just pro rata-ing the solar calc given). Well done NASA.

    Pity some of us can’t get a signal on our mobiles.

  8. Marty has it about right, except the obligatory “There is enough material in these photos to keep us busy for years analyzing them! But, we need more funding to do a proper job of it!”

    That said, I do think it is pretty cool to be able to do it. Worthwhile, no; cool, yes.

    • Every discovery in science is cool Bowbridge. The worthwhile-to-the-non-appreciative part always comes later.

      The quest of science itself ennobles a society. To my mind, that makes science worthwhile no matter any economic benefit.

    • Worthwhile is only relative to the level of immediate gratification you are looking for. Can be measured in increments of seconds,minutes,hours,days,months,years,decades,centuries,millennia…

      Happy New Year!

      • “Every discovery in science is cool Bowbridge. The worthwhile-to-the-non-appreciative part always comes later.:


        “Worthwhile is only relative to the level of immediate gratification you are looking for. Can be measured in increments of seconds,minutes,hours,days,months,years,decades,centuries,millennia…”

        LOL! Sounds like something Deep Thought would have said after the two guys said: “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years work?!!”

  9. How do they make sure they are looking at the right rock?

    I’m not being silly or snarky here. It just seems to me that a little fuzziness in the calculations out at the 20th decimal place or so may have them looking at a neighboring rock.

    Regardless, it will be very interesting to get a closeup view of something that far away.

      • You ever mis-strike a golf ball by 1/8″ Mark?

        One answer I thought of after a bit is that they are expecting a peanut shape or some binary arrangement, so if they are headed between two rocks and one of them is roundish, look at the other one. I guess they have time to pick out their rock on the approach to the neighborhood.

        (The other clue is that it probably has a Starbucks on it. 😜)

        • If my golf balls had the kind of guidance systems that these probes due, I’d not just get a hole in one every time, but the ball wouldn’t even touch the sides of the cup.

          • MarkW – NASA Developed Technology is shorthand for a complex system of contractors, researchers, in-house oversight, and other relationships that would take pages to describe. Feel free to spell it out, with all the caveats, yah buts, and sorta but not exactlys you care to include.

            NASA does Space Programs, too. That is also shorthand.

        • Out in the Kuiper belt, objects are far apart. The one that becomes visibly larger than a speck is the one the probe will watch.

  10. New Horizons left earth in 2006. Ultima Thule, which is reported to be about 20 miles across, was not discovered until 2014 and New Horizons is expected to close encounter at 12.33 am, Jan 1st plus or minus 2 secs. How the hell do they do that? The mind boggles.

  11. I’m waiting for NASA’s satellite photos of asteroid Psyche 16, which will be available in 2026.

    It’s estimated Psyche 16 contains $10,000 quadrillion worth of metals, and is thought to be part of the inner core of some ancient destroyed planet:

    I think that within 100 years, man should have the technology capable of profitably mining such an asteroid and bring those resources back to earth, which why I think people like Elon Musk are now investing so much in private-sector space technology..

    Oh, I forgot… no life on earth will exist in 100 years due to CAGW… My bad….

  12. >> “No one has ever seen a Kuiper Belt object as anything but a point of light.”

    Errr. uhmmm, what about Pluto?

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