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Earth Matters Sailing into parts unknown — and sending back photos

December 29, 2018

On New Year’s Day, people will see something astonishing — an object in space about 4.5 billion years away, in a realm, the Kuiper Belt, that’s totally unexplored.

The New Horizons spacecraft, which sent back stunning pictures of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon in 2017 has kept sailing into parts unknown.

On New Year’s Day, it will get within 2,200 miles of a Kuiper Belt object astronomers have nicknamed Ultima Thule — the name medieval mapmakers gave to the land they thought was farthest north. (Norway, Greenland and Iceland all got the Thule treatment at one time or another.)

No one has any idea what they’ll see. Ultima Thule is also totally terra incognito.

“It will be really fascinating,” said Cliff Watley of Ridgefield, who runs the astronomy nights at New Pond Farm in Redding. “It’s gone a billion miles past Pluto.”

Monte Robson, director of the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford, said on one hand, he is troubled that people ignore our own planet’s troubles — climate change, wars. But he said the quest for knowledge is always what humans do and should do.

“It helps us find new questions to ask,” he said. “It’s exciting.”

Like Watley, Bill Cloutier of New Milford — one of the leaders of the McCarthy Observatory — will be glued to his computer to watch the show. We don’t know what Kuiper Belt objects are, so any information could be a huge expansion of our knowledge.

“We’ll be going into a place we’ve never explored at all,” Cloutier said.

The Kuiper Belt is the vast ring that encircles the solar system beyond Neptune. Some are as big as Pluto and Charon. One, Eris, is bigger than Pluto. Because there are trillions of objects in it, no one really knows what they’re like.

The belt is named after the Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who theorized in 1949 there was a huge belt of objects — some comets — encircling the outer planets. In the 1990s, better telescopes proved him right. New Horizons is the first satellite to travel there.

Geoff Chester, spokesman for the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., said this mission will be even more surprising than New Horizon’s unprecedented trip to Pluto.

“This is a pinpoint of light that was never more than a pinpoint of light to us,” he said. “On New Year’s Day, it becomes a place.”

Chester said the astronomers in charge of New Horizons were apprehensive at first about letting New Horizons get so close to Ultima Thule — whose real name is the drab 2014MU69.

It was only when they learned it had no rings or debris encircling it, that they decided it was safe.

Henry Throop, a professor with the applied physics department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and one of the lead scientists on the New Horizons project, admitted that he was as excited as anyone about the fly-by.

“This is so cool,” he said. “It’s the coldest, smallest, farthest-away thing we’ve ever studied. If we can see any features, any craters, that’s new.”

Astronomers, once they get the New Horizon pictures, will be looking for evidence of collisions — other rocky objects bashing into Ultima Thule. They will also be looking for evidence of ice slides off its face.

They will also try to answer a basic question about Kuiper Belt objects — are they leftovers tossed off into deep space as the solar system formed? Has Ultima Thule been sitting out for 4.5 billion years all by its lonesome?

Throop gave credit to the scientists and engineers who designed New Horizon. Launched in January 2006, it has succeeded spectacularly.

One of the reasons for this is that New Horizon, traveling billion of miles into deep space, has no moving parts.

“If you’re sending a rover to Mars, you need lots of moving parts,” Throop said. “We don’t.”

That even applies to the satellite’s camera.

“It doesn’t have a shutter or a color filter,” he said.

As for Ultima Thule and its medieval nickname, it’s unclear whether that will ever become official — the coldest, the farthest north — and replace 2014MU69.

For one thing, Chester of the US Naval Observatory said, naming objects in space can take years, with the international Astronomical Union having the final say.

And, Throop said, the New Horizon pictures may suggest better, as yet unimagined names.

“It depends on what we see,” he said.

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com

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