Any one of a thousand things could have gone wrong, causing New Horizons’ flyby to Ultima Thule, four billion miles from Earth, to fail. But the team of scientists led by Niwot’s Dr. Alan Stern made the most distant space mission ever a smashing success on the first day of 2019.
“It not only worked, it worked flawlessly,” Stern said. “Every single scientific instrument worked, the spacecraft had no issues, the navigation was perfect, the ground operations were perfect. It’s amazing. Can you tell I’m proud of these people?”
Stern, a planetary scientist with Southwest Research Institute in Boulder and the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission along with his aerospace team, has been at mission control in Baltimore, MD, since late November making all of the critically timed decisions and technical maneuvers needed to seamlessly guide the vehicle within 2200 miles from the surface of the planetary object.
New Horizons’ odyssey began in 2006 when it launched into space on its mission to explore Pluto, the furthest planet in our solar system. The first payoff occurred on July 14, 2015 as the spacecraft transmitted astounding images of Pluto back to Earth. It then continued on its journey to the Kuiper Belt, a vast never-explored frontier that holds information essential to understanding how our solar system operates and how planets form.
“This flyby was a huge operation,” Stern said. “There’s a massive amount of planning and operations. Everyone sees what we did on TV for one minute, but this has been in planning for three and a half years. This has been the focus of my team’s professional life and is literally millions of man hours.”
Unequivocally, Stern said he could not possibly be happier with the results of the team’s efforts, especially given the challenging technical aspects of the extended portion of New Horizons’ mission.
“It was literally harder than the original mission on every level,” he said.
The team was tasked with reaching the infinitesimally smaller destination, only 18 miles in diameter, with a serious lack of illumination while managing preciously scarce power and dealing with a 12-hour communication delay owing to the billions of miles between New Horizons and Earth.
Essentially the spacecraft was steered toward a speck 100 times smaller than Pluto in the dark, straining its instruments as the team’s computer programs juggled every use of power to prevent any brownouts.
To achieve all of this under budget constraints, which Stern explained is the norm for NASA when a mission goes beyond its primary project, meant they would have to operate with a small group of people working long hours, with access to limited resources, thereby making the mission risky.
Twenty-five scientists from the Boulder area were part of New Horizons’ success story with three members, Stern, Cathy Olkin, and Kelsi Singer, living in Niwot.
Although New Horizons’ mission control is located in Maryland, Colorado is also considered an aerospace epicenter in general and for this mission in particular. Boulder’s Ball Aerospace built the onboard camera, the University of Colorado was responsible for creating groundbreaking dust-counting instrumentation, Denver’s Lockheed Martin built the rocket, and Longmont’s Custom Microwave also contributed to the mission.
The intensity of the week leading up to the flyby meant Stern and his team members didn’t get more than four hours of sleep a night. The small group worked around the clock doing “instant” science as data arrived, while simultaneously entertaining 1500 VIP guests and 100 journalists who were at mission control to watch the event.
Even with less than one percent of the anticipated data currently in hand, the images have proven to be fantastic. Ultima Thule’s double-lobed body appears exactly as scientists conjectured in their mathematical models, Stern said. It’s textbook material for the formation of a new planet.
Seeing the fledgling planet in its reddish snowman-shaped splendor was just a tiny appetizer in a seven-course meal, Stern said. By as early as March the data being downloaded will be significant enough to form a more complete picture, allowing the New Horizons’ team to understand the composition of the planetary body. Over the next 20 months, as higher resolution images make their way back to mission control, scientists from every specialty will be analyzing the data.
Geologists, geophysicists, chemists, and other experts will use the images to figure out the body’s structure, origin, and composition.
“We’re also looking for one or more moons to determine why Ultima Thule rotates so slowly,” Stern said.
Already over seven million miles away from Ultima Thule, the journey continues. “We’re just going farther and farther out every day. I’m sure there will be a large number of surprises,” Stern said.
The team hopes to set the spacecraft’s next target of exploration, but the bureaucratic process to determine that destination could take two or three years. New Horizons is nearing its 13-year anniversary and could have more than 13 years ahead of it, Stern said.
“It’s been the privilege of a lifetime to do this. I’ve been involved with 29 space missions and I’ve led on 14 of them, but this one is so beyond the others. It’s like being an actor who’s been on Broadway and in movies, but never had a hit and suddenly we win movie of the year – twice. It’s incredible what this is about. This is the one people will read about in text books in 100 or 200 years because the exploration of Pluto, the furthest planet, will go down in history.”
Brian May of the band Queen has a Ph.D. in astrophysics and is a friend of Stern’s. May’s lyrics in his music video tribute to New Horizons beautifully sum up the wonder that is this mission: “Tonight the hand of man reaches out to throw light on how life came about. New Horizons, a dream coming true, new horizons that will change our point of view.”
“It’s amazing, this historic thing we just did and the thing we did at Pluto,” Stern said. “And it’s just us, a bunch of people from Boulder, Baltimore and other places, just 50 people…really smart, talented, dedicated people, who did this thing that’s so much larger than life.”