Such a lovely slow time we’re having right now. The holidays are over, and though a few bits and pieces of ornamentation still dot the home, by the end of the weekend, all will be returned to their storage spot for another year. The manic pace has receded, the humans are actually sitting still for long stretches at a time, and we have time to ponder those deep philosophical questions that were put off with the arrival of that first turkey.
At least until Mardi Gras arrives.
Deep pondering thought number 1 brought us back to one of our favorite topics – NASA and space exploration generally. Fortunately, someone in the government does have some intelligence because NASA remained open, despite the official shutdown. NASA had another milestone moment on New Year’s Eve when the New Horizons probe made close contact with Ultima Thule, a mysterious object in the equally mysterious Kuiper Belt. A full house was there to cheer on the hardy little craft, which had already completed flybys of Pluto and its moons.
Aside from the fact that NASA was able to successfully plot this flyby of an object over 4 billion miles away from Earth, there were a lot of other amazing firsts for New Horizons. Most impressive in our minds was that the visit to Ultima Thule was planned entirely on the fly, literally. New Horizons had already launched when the plan to investigate the icy domain beyond Pluto was approved and the scramble was on to find that perfect object to investigate.
That perfect object wasn’t so easy to find. Despite the fact that the Kuiper Belt’s existence was confirmed in 1992, very little about this area is known and only a handful of objects have been discovered. The NASA team needed an object that would be reachable by New Horizons once it left Pluto’s orbit – and one that wouldn’t require a high fuel burn either. Astronomers across the globe scanned the skies with little success. The problem? The area NASA needed to study was in the part of the Milky Way with the one of the highest concentration of stars, as you look out from Earth.
The solution to the problem? Another one of NASA’s great success stories – the Hubble telescope. It was Hubble that found a small object in the right area and the right time with the right orbit to make it a potential target for New Horizons. With only months to go, NASA scrambled to determine the object’s trajectory and to map the path New Horizons would have to take. Usually this type of planning takes years, with every number double and triple checked. But as New Horizons finished its tour of Pluto, new instructions had to be given.
No doubt a few quick prayers were said, but New Horizons did indeed find this strange object, dubbed Ultima Thule, and sent back some strange pictures indeed. It’s been compared to a bowling pin and BB8 though we personally think it looks like a snowman after a long night in Vegas. More importantly, New Horizons will be sending back data on composition, chemical traces and other similar types of information. This will tell us a great deal more about the beginnings of our solar system.
The second bit of recent space news is from China. The Chinese have been slowly building their own space program and have been making their own strides in space exploration. Their most recent success has placed a lander/rover on the far side of the moon – a dark, mysterious place that other man-made objects have flown by but never visited, in large part because the dark side of the moon is hard to communicate with. The Chinese placed a small satellite in orbit over the moon back in May of last year to serve as a link between the lander and mission control back on Earth as a first step in the mission and so far, it’s worked like a dream.
The lander/rover set down on the Aitken Basin, a relatively smooth basin near the South Pole. The mission will perform many of the experiments you might expect from a lunar mission like testing for minerals and radiation. But the Chang-e 4 will also be planting seeds on the surface. Yes, moon potatoes could be coming to a fast food fryer near you soon – well, maybe not that soon, but it’s still fun to think about.
With all the loud, blaring news alerts that seem to fill the airwaves these days, it’s nice to have a bit of quiet, truly extraordinary events to revel in.