Looking Up: New Horizons For A New Year

Dec 31, 2018

Illustration of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 – nicknamed “Ultima Thule” – a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto. Set for New Year’s 2019, New Horizons’ exploration of Ultima will be the farthest space probe flyby in history.
Credit NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI / nasa.gov

On this New Year's Eve edition of Looking Up Hal makes sure we don't forget an old acquaintance - the New Horizons spacecraft.

With New Years Day tomorrow, many of us will be thinking about the coming year and wondering about the new horizons we will see. But before we talk about new horizons, I’d like to talk about a very cool thing that is happening tomorrow with the old New Horizons.

And by old New Horizons, I mean the New Horizons spacecraft that fly by Pluto back in 2015 and returned wonderful pictures and data. You may well have forgotten about this plucky little spacecraft, but it’s still working, and tomorrow will so something almost unbelievably cool.

You see, after it flew past Pluto, scientists at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder searched for something else to visit. Way, way out beyond Pluto is a vast cloud of stuff left over from when the Solar System was formed over 4.5 B years ago. That debris, called the Kuiper Belt, has around 35,000 objects that are 60 miles or so across, and up to 100 M other smaller worlds. And New Horizons is going to fly past one of them, named Ultima Thule, tomorrow. And what is Ultima Thule? We don’t know yet! It appears to look a bit like a peanut, with two large lobes, but after tomorrow, we’ll know much more. But as the data are sent back, we’ll learn volumes about some of the most distant things in the Solar System. Far out!

If you’d like to take a closer look at any of the wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit csastro.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties.