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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.

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Rock-star astrophysicist debuts space anthem

Brian May
Brian May, who is the lead guitarist for the rock group Queen as well as a Ph.D. astrophysicist, shows off his New Horizons mission patch during a Q&A with journalists. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAUREL, Md. — After you’ve participated in NASA’s New Horizons mission to the edge of the solar system, and written a rock anthem for the mission as well, what is there left to do? For Brian May, the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen who went on to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics, maybe it’s taking a trip to space.

“I’m probably too old to do that,” the 71-year-old British rocker said at first. “A little too old in the tooth to do that.”

Then, after a moment of reflection, he changed his tune.

“I probably still would like to, yeah,” he said. “I don’t really fancy the idea of going up and having a few seconds and then coming back down again. That doesn’t appeal to me. What appeals to me more is, for instance, the ISS [International Space Station], where you can go up there and you sit there and contemplate the world which you were born on, and watch it turn underneath you.”

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Probe sends first glimpse of distant icy world

Ultima Thule views
The left image shows a raw, pixel-by-pixel view of an icy object known as Ultima Thule, as captured by NASA’s New Horizons probe at 11:56 a.m. ET Dec. 30 from a distance of 1.2 million miles. (JHUAPL / SwRI / NASA via YouTube)

LAUREL, Md. — The science team for NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft released its first multi-pixel view of an icy world more than 4 billion miles from Earth, and the analysis suggests it’s an elongated space cigar.

“We know it’s not round, we can say that with confidence,” John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute, one of the mission’s project scientists, said today during a news briefing scheduled just hours before the probe was due to fly just 2,200 miles past the mysterious object.

Based on observations made on Earth during stellar occultations, Spencer and other astronomers suspected that the object — known by its formal designation, 2014 MU69, or by its nickname, Ultima Thule — might be made of smooshed-together chunks of ice and rock.

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Ring in the New Year with history’s farthest flyby

Alan Stern
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, stands alongside a scale model of the New Horizons spacecraft after a briefing on the Ultima Thule flyby. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAUREL, Md. — The sleeping bags are rolled out and the videos are cued up for a New Year’s celebration of cosmic proportions here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, but the star of the show is still a mystery.

That’ll change once NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies past an icy object more than 4 billion miles from Earth, known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule.

The piano-sized probe is due to make its closest approach at 12:33 a.m. ET on New Year’s Day (9:33 p.m. PT Dec. 31), nearly 13 years after New Horizons’ launch and three and a half years after it flew past Pluto.

Mission managers say it’s all systems go for history’s farthest-out close encounter with a celestial body.

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Year in Space: From launch pad to beyond Pluto

Falcon Heavy launch
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket clears the tower in February 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Launches, launches, launches! 2018 was a big year for liftoffs, particularly for SpaceX and its billionaire CEO, Elon Musk. The past year also saw a number of notable trips to interplanetary destinations, including the Martian surface and two asteroids. What’s up for next year? More of the same, only way different.

For more than two decades, I’ve been writing year-end roundups of the top stories in space science and exploration, with a look-ahead to cosmic coming attractions. 2019 could well bring about developments I’ve been predicting on an annual basis going as far back as a decade, such as the rise of commercial human spaceflight.

Other trends are easier to predict, because they’re based on the cold, hard facts of celestial mechanics. Check out these tales from 2018, expected trends for 2019 and my year-end space roundups going back to 2001 (with lots of failed predictions). Then feel free to weigh in with your comments to tell me what I missed.

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New Horizons probe zeroes in on Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule and New Horizons
An artist’s conception shows Ultima Thule with the New Horizons probe silhouetted by the sun. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Illustration)

Act Two of the 12-year-old New Horizons mission to Pluto and the solar system’s icy Kuiper Belt is heating up, with less than a month to go before NASA’s piano-sized spacecraft makes history’s farthest-out close encounter with a celestial object.

The New Year’s flyby of a mysterious Kuiper Belt object (or objects) known as Ultima Thule (UL-ti-ma THOO-lee) follows up on the mission’s first act, which hit a climax three years ago with a history-making flyby of Pluto.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons was never meant to be a one-shot deal. Even before the Pluto flyby, mission managers used the Hubble Space Telescope to identify its next quarry, a billion miles farther out in the Kuiper Belt. Now it’s crunch time for New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and his team.

Again.

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New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx spot their targets

Ultima Thule
The picture on the left was created by adding 48 different exposures from the LORRI camera on NASA’s New Horizons probe. The picture on the right has been processed to subtract the light from background stars, leaving an icy object known as Ultima Thule shining dimly in the crosshairs. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Photo)

The next few months are due to bring two amazing interplanetary encounters: a rendezvous with an asteroid and a flyby past a mysterious icy object beyond Pluto on the solar system’s edge. Over the past few days, we’ve gotten our first fleeting peeks at both targets, and the view will only get better from now on.

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New Horizons probe wakes up for post-Pluto flyby

Ultima Thule and New Horizons
An artist’s conception shows Ultima Thule with the New Horizons probe silhouetted by the sun. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Illustration)

The mission operations team for NASA’s New Horizons probe has awakened the spacecraft from its robotic hibernation, and now it’ll stay awake for its scheduled Jan. 1 flyby of a mysterious object on the solar system’s edge, known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule.

New Horizons has been traveling toward Ultima Thule since its history-making Pluto flyby in 2015. To save on resources, the piano-sized probe has been in hibernation mode since last Dec. 21.

The radio signals confirming New Horizons’ latest wakeup call took more than five and a half hours to flash at the speed of light from the solar system’s frontier to NASA’s Deep Space Network, and onward to mission control at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. The good news finally arrived at 2:12 a.m. ET today (11:12 p.m. PT June 4).

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Scientists say Pluto was made from a billion comets

Pluto composition
These maps, assembled using data from the Ralph spectral imager on NASA’s New Horizons probe, shows the relative concentration of four chemicals on Pluto’s surface. Methane is shown in purple, nitrogen in yellow, carbon monoxide in green, and water ice in blue. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Images)

Did Pluto form like its closer-in brethren in the solar system, or is it the result of an agglomeration of comets from the edge of the solar system? A study published in the journal Icarus makes the case for comets.

To reach that conclusion, Christopher Glein and J. Hunter Waite Jr. of the Southwest Research Institute compared chemical analyses from NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto with readings from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The result is what’s known as the “giant comet” cosmochemical model of Pluto formation.

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Pluto’s champions tell the tale of an epic mission

Image: Pluto stamp
The 1991 stamp that served as the rallying cry for the New Horizons Mission to Pluto is “updated” by members of the New Horizons science team on July 14, 2015, the day the spacecraft flew past Pluto. Principal investigator Alan Stern is at far left. (Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA)

It took nine years for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to get to Pluto, and laying the groundwork for that history-making space mission here on Earth took nearly twice as long.

The drama and intrigue surrounding New Horizons during those decades, as chronicled in a new book titled “Chasing New Horizons: Inside the First Mission to Pluto,” might be enough for any planetary scientist. But Alan Stern — the book’s co-author, the mission’s principal investigator and arguably Pluto’s most ardent defender — is ready to do it all again.

Stern doesn’t expect his campaign to send an orbiter to Pluto to face quite as many challenges, now that the world knows so much more about the dwarf planet with a giant heart.

“I hope it’s a more straightforward process,” Stern told GeekWire. “First of all, there are now a lot more people who are interested in going back to Pluto. … Now that we’ve done the flyby, there isn’t a planetary scientist in the world that isn’t impressed.”

Last month, Stern and other New Horizons scientists signed onto a white papercalling for NASA to fund an in-depth study of potential Pluto orbiter missions. That grass-roots approach mirrors how the “Pluto Underground” campaign for New Horizons got started around a restaurant table in Baltimore,  back in 1989.

“Chasing New Horizons,” written by Stern and astrobiologist David Grinspoon, traces the twists and turns that led from there to the piano-sized spacecraft’s launch in 2006 and its Pluto flyby in 2015.

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