Category Archives: Pluto and beyond

New Horizons successfully flies by Ultima Thule & Brian May releases commemorative song

The New Horizons probe made a successful flyby of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule today. (See earlier preview posting.) It will take several weeks for all of the high resolution images and data to be downloaded from the distant spacecraft. The first high-res flyby views will come out in a day or two. Today a blurry “pre-flyby” image was released: New Horizons Successfully Explores Ultima Thule: NASA Spacecraft Reaches Most Distant Target in History – JHAPL

At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons’ high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule’s size and shape so far. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). An artist’s impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. The direction of Ultima’s spin axis is indicated by the arrows. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI; sketch courtesy of James Tuttle Keane

Here is a video of a briefing held today at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL), which manages the NASA-funded project (the panel discussion starts at ~23:00):

The New Horizons team shares the first image of Ultima Thule, as well as updates on spacecraft status and flyby success, from the Mission Operations Center at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

Panelists include Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute; Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory; Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory; Chris Hersman, New Horizons mission systems engineer, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

The former Queen guitarist and professional astrophysicist Brian May was at JHUAPL for the event and he released a new song in honor of the New Horizons mission: Queen’s rock-star astrophysicist Brian May debuts anthem for a far-out trip – GeekWire

More about the flyby:


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

New Horizons to make New Years flyby of Ultima Thule

The New Horizons probe made its flyby of Pluto in July of 2015 and then sped on into the Kuiper Belt, a vast region of space inhabited by debris from the earliest era in the formation of the solar system. As a mission bonus, the trajectory of the spacecraft was subsequently nudged by its engine to send the craft past the recently discovered Kuiper object labeled 2014 MU69. With the help of a public contest, the object was given the more interesting name of Ultima Thule –

Thule was a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography. Ultima Thule means “beyond Thule”– beyond the borders of the known world—symbolizing the exploration of the distant Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt objects that New Horizons is performing, something never before done.

On New Years Day 2019 at 12:33 am EST, New Horizons will make its closest approach to Ultima Thule, which is about 30 kilometers (20 miles) in size. In fact, it will fly three times closer than its nearest distance from the surface of Pluto. Ultima Thule will be the farthest object ever targeted by a spacecraft from earth.

The Kuiper Belt lies in the so-called “third zone” of our solar system, beyond the terrestrial planets (inner zone) and gas giants (middle zone). This vast region contains billions of objects, including comets, dwarf planets like Pluto and “planetesimals” like Ultima Thule. The objects in this region are believed to be frozen in time — relics left over from the formation of the solar system. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Here is an update: All About Ultima: New Horizons Flyby Target is Unlike Anything Explored in Space – New Horizons – Dec.26.2018

Marc Buie, New Horizons co-investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and members of the New Horizons science team discovered Ultima using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. The object is so far and faint in all telescopes, little is known about the world beyond its location and orbit. In 2016, researchers determined it had a red color. In 2017, a NASA campaign using ground-based telescopes traced out its size — just about 20 miles (30 kilometers) across — and irregular shape when it passed in front of a star, an event called a “stellar occultation.”

From its brightness and size, New Horizons team members have calculated Ultima’s reflectivity, which is only about 10 percent, or about as dark as garden dirt. Beyond that, nothing else is known about it — basic facts like its rotational period and whether or not it has moons are unknown.

“All that is about to dramatically change on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, also of SwRI. “New Horizons will map Ultima, map its surface composition, determine how many moons it has and find out if it has rings or even an atmosphere. It will make other studies, too, such as measuring Ultima’s temperature and perhaps even its mass. In the space of one 72-hour period, Ultima will be transformed from a pinpoint of light — a dot in the distance — to a fully explored world. It should be breathtaking!”

A sequence of images from the New Horizons camera shows the object growing larger in the field of view:

Here is a preview discussion of the flyby:

Members of the New Horizons team previewed the mission’s New Year’s 2019 flyby of the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule during a media briefing at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Ultima flyby, with closest approach set for 12:33 a.m. EST in Jan. 1, will be the most distant planetary encounter in history. Team members covered the significance and challenges of this flyby, its science goals and operational timelines, and the Kuiper Belt in the context of solar system exploration.

Presenters are: Alan Stern, principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute Carey Lisse, science team collaborator, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Hal Weaver, project scientist, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Kelsi Singer, co-investigator, Southwest Research Institute

More resources:


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Video: Alan Stern and David Grinspoon talk about the “Epic First Mission to Pluto”

Dr. Alan Stern (Southwest Research Inst) and Dr. David Grinspoon (Planetary Science Inst) recently gave a public lecture on the New Horizon  mission to Pluto and beyond:  

In July 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto, revealing its surface to our view for the first time. In this program, Drs. Stern and Grinspoon give us an insider’s view of how this complex mission came to be and what it discovered at the edge of our solar system. Their new book (like the talk and with the same title) tells the full story of the mission, its ground-breaking discoveries at Pluto, and where it’s going next. Here is new science, straight from the source, with great insight into what it’s like to be part of a pioneering planetary mission.

Grinspoon and Stern have written a well-reviewed new book about the New Horizon project: Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto.

And the two have refuted the silly assertion that Pluto is not a planet: Why Pluto is a planet and many moons are, too – The Washington Post

… the process for redefining planet was deeply flawed and widely criticized even by those who accepted the outcome. At the 2006 IAU conference, which was held in Prague, the few scientists remaining at the very end of the week-long meeting (less than 4 percent of the world’s astronomers and even a smaller percentage of the world’s planetary scientists) ratified a hastily drawn definition that contains obvious flaws. For one thing, it defines a planet as an object orbiting around our sun — thereby disqualifying the planets around other stars, ignoring the exoplanet revolution, and decreeing that essentially all the planets in the universe are not, in fact, planets.

Even within our solar system, the IAU scientists defined “planet” in a strange way, declaring that if an orbiting world has “cleared its zone,” or thrown its weight around enough to eject all other nearby objects, it is a planet. Otherwise it is not. This criterion is imprecise and leaves many borderline cases, but what’s worse is that they chose a definition that discounts the actual physical properties of a potential planet, electing instead to define “planet” in terms of the other objects that are — or are not — orbiting nearby. This leads to many bizarre and absurd conclusions. For example, it would mean that Earth was not a planet for its first 500 million years of history, because it orbited among a swarm of debris until that time, and also that if you took Earth today and moved it somewhere else, say out to the asteroid belt, it would cease being a planet.

See also Pluto’s demotion ignores astronomical history | Science News


Astronomers discover ring around faraway dwarf planet Haumea

A collaboration of astronomers and observatories have discovered that the dwarf planet Haumea, which orbits out beyond Neptune, has  a ring around it: Oddball dwarf planet Haumea has a ring | Science News

On January 21, [Jose-Luis Ortiz of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Granada, Spain] and colleagues used 12 telescopes at 10 observatories to peer into the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, and watch Haumea block the light of a distant star. That tiny eclipse let the team measure the dwarf planet’s size, shape and surrounding environment more accurately than ever before.

Haumea turned out to be larger — its long axis stretches at least 2,322 kilometers, a bit more than half the width of the contiguous United States — and less dense than previously thought, the team reports October 11 in Nature. To their surprise, the researchers also saw the background star flicker before and after its light was blocked by Haumea itself. That flicker is consistent with a 70-kilometer-wide ring about 1,000 kilometers above the dwarf planet’s surface.

The ring presumably consists of rocks and ice like planetary rings elsewhere: Planetary Society-funded telescopes help find ring around Haumea, a distant dwarf planet | The Planetary Society

We know giant planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have rings, but thus far, we’ve only found them around two small worlds. Chariklo is about 250 kilometers wide, and has two rings, while Chiron, about the same size, is also suspected to have a ring. Both Chariklo and Chiron are Centaurs, small worlds orbiting the Sun between the asteroid belt and Kuiper belt, crisscrossing the giant planets’ orbits. 

With today’s announcement, Haumea becomes the first, small, non-Centaur known to have a ring, and the farthest ring world we’ve found in our solar system. 

An artist’s rendering of how the ring around Haumea might look.

Lockheed seeing payoff from investments in commercial space technology –