15 January 2019

NASA's New Horizons Reaches the Farthest Object Ever Explored

Intro Copy

On January 1, 2019, as people across the United States and the world were ringing in the New Year, scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Science Laboratory were huddled in a room, anxiously awaiting a long-distance “phone call.” In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft performed a historic flyby of Pluto, capturing breathtaking images of what used to be our ninth planet. Since then, New Horizons has been speeding along at almost 32,000 mph heading toward the Kuiper Belt, the cloud of comets, asteroids and other rocky and icy objects at the edge of our solar system. On January 1, at 12:33 a.m., New Horizons was scheduled to fly past the most distant object ever observed by a spacecraft: Ultima Thule. The JHU lab erupted in cheers as the signal from the spacecraft arrived saying that all of its systems were working fine and that data had begun transmitting back to earth. Ultima Thule (Latin for beyond the borders of the known world) is an object that is 4 billion miles from Earth - almost a billion miles beyond Pluto. Images of Ultima Thule have been slowly filtering in; slowly because of the data transmission speeds from the spacecraft and due to the fact that it takes roughly 6 hours for a signal to reach Earth from that distance. Photos show that Ultima Thule is composed of two rocky, icy objects fused together to form what has been described as a “snowman” drifting in space. The object appears to have a reddish hue in the first color images beamed back. The object is so old and so pristine that observing the images is like looking back in time to the beginning of the solar system. Scientists believe that Ultima Thule formed when two bodies began rotating around each other until they touched, and now gravity is holding them together. The dark red color has been observed in other Kuiper Belt objects. Ultima Thule is about 21 miles in length. There are many more images on the way, but it may take up to 20 months for New Horizons to download all of the information it has gathered from its New Year’s flyby. At the date of publication of this blog, New Horizons has already traveled almost 11 million more miles into the Kuiper Belt. Science teachers and STEAM programs can use up-to-date articles in eLibrary to get students interested in this latest historic endeavor from NASA. One quick searching method is to put “New Horizons” AND Thule in the search bar. You can also use field codes to search for New Horizons or Thule in the article title:  TI(New Horizons) AND TI(Ultima Thule). Teachers can also show students the excellent NOVA program Pluto and Beyond from PBS. This program aired the day after the historic flyby and explains how the mission was planned and shows reactions from the JHU APL staff after they received the first signal from the spacecraft. Students can also keep up with the future adventures of New Horizons by following both NASA and John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab on Twitter.

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