Farthest flyby celebrated with New Year’s flair

New Horizons celebration
Surrounded by children, New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and Ralph Semmel, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, celebrate the moment when the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAUREL, Md. — Hundreds of well-wishers took part in a different kind of New Year’s countdown, 33 minutes past midnight, to celebrate the moment when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past an icy object known as Ultima Thule, more than 4 billion miles away.

The revelers here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory didn’t yet know for sure whether the piano-sized probe actually survived the encounter. Because of the complicated schedule for New Horizons’ observations, plus the 6-hour-plus time it takes for radio signals to travel from Ultima Thule to NASA’s Deep Space Network, definitive word of success (or failure) won’t come until hours later on New Year’s Day.

Despite the uncertainty, tonight’s gathering had many of the trappings of a New Year’s Eve party, including sparkling wine and party hats. Mission team members and New Horizons’ fans, plus family members, noshed on hors d’oeuvres and watched presentations and performances (including a sing-along in New Horizons’ honor) during the buildup to 12:33 a.m. ET (9:33 p.m. PT Dec. 31).

Just after midnight, rock-star astrophysicist Brian May — who has gained fame for his 3-D astronomical imagery as well as for his riffs as lead guitarist for the rock group Queen — unveiled the full version of a rock anthem he wrote for the occasion.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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