Back on New Year’s Day, 2019, the world got its first glimpses of MU69, a tiny rock orbiting our Sun almost a billion miles farther out than Pluto, in the heart of the Kuiper Belt. This rock represented our first up-close look at such a distant solar system object. Though it dwells in the same region we believe most comets originate, this was our first look at a Kuiper object in its natural habitat. It was the farthest unexplored land, the mysterious place beyond our known horizons, a place we knew existed, but had never visited. Like so many similar lands here on Earth that have been labeled with this same name, we called it Ultima Thule.
Our spacecraft, New Horizons, had already set records. After launch it was the fastest man-made object ever created. Its primary mission, to visit Pluto and its companion Charon, showed us a dwarf planet system that, while small, is surprisingly alive with apparent geologic activity. Its data was enlightening, and we’re still processing it, still learning.
This secondary target, Ultima Thule, was a significant challenge – Ultima Thule is slightly bigger than Manhattan (about 19 miles long) and New Horizons was screaming past at over 36,000 miles an hour, the very definition of a “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” encounter. New Horizons had only a few minutes to snap as many photos as it could, and then slowly transmit them over billions of miles back to Earth.
Ultima Thule, courtesy of NASA/JPL and the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).
Our first glimpses were of an adorable, photogenic contact binary. Two rocks that had nudged together and then fused into a single object. A peanut, later resolved into more of a snowman. Initial reactions compared it to known comet nuclei, like 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, all of which have the lobed shapes associated with lumpy objects just like Ultima Thule.
As the weeks progressed, more pictures slowly came in, revealing that Ultima Thule is not a snowman, but a flattened pancake and a dented walnut. An irregular shape whose origins are completely mysterious to us. This is true discovery of the unknown.
New Horizons – NASA/JPL
New Horizons was launched in 2006. To put that in perspective, the first smartphones weren’t produced until a year later, in 2007. By that time, this little spacecraft was already screaming through interplanetary space faster than anything we’d ever created. In the 12 years since launch, our computing horsepower and data management capabilities have significantly improved – but New Horizons doesn’t have any of that. Now, it’s sharing data from literally billions of miles away, using a 12-watt transmitter – a fifth of a typical household light bulb. That’s far enough that the signal takes 4.5 hours to reach us, and at roughly 1 kilobit/sec, each image takes about 42 minutes to download.
This is not unlike comparisons often made to the Apollo missions – the craft that took men to the Moon had less computing power than a modern pocket calculator.
The point is, there are always reasons to put things off. We could have done much more with this mission if we were to launch it today. But had we waited, we wouldn’t know what we do. Instead, we made the best use of what we had, asked smart people to create a clever design and do the best that then-modern technology could support, and then we threw all our hopes, dreams, and enthusiasm into the pursuit. And it has been successful, expanding our knowledge of the universe beyond anything we could have hoped for. Next time, we’ll be able to build upon this effort.
Don’t wait for better times. The sunny day you hope for may come too late, and in the waiting, you’ll lose opportunity. Seize the moment, and do the best you can, with what you can. Your effort will be rewarded.
Pluto, as seen by New Horizons and LORRI. Courtesy NASA/JPL.
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