The real party on New Year’s Eve took place at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) with high profile guests Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and NASA. And while ringing in 2019 was exciting, the coolest part was no doubt one of the first amazing feats of the new year: The New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule at 12:33 AM.
A re-creation of the New Horizons trajectory up to its encounter with Pluto in 2015 created with STK/Astrogator by Mike Loucks of Space Exploration Engineering
The New Horizons spacecraft launched on January 16, 2006 with the goal of exploring Pluto for the first time in history and the outer zone of our solar system, the Kuiper Belt. Different than the asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt is more donut-shaped and holds answers to how our solar system may have originated.
Back in 2015, New Horizons nailed its flyby of Pluto and it took some pretty astonishing photos. Three and a half years later, it flawlessly performed its next trick, flying three times closer to Ultima Thule than it did Pluto. So why is this New York City-sized space rock important?
- Ultima Thule, a pristine, primordial space object, hasn’t been extensively affected by the Sun, allowing scientists to really see the raw form of our early solar system.
- At a distance of over 6 billion kilometers from Earth, Ultima Thule stands at roughly 100 km in diameter. Navigating a spacecraft to such a small object at such a distance represents a significant feat. (A slightly more complicated engineering challenge than dropping the Ball at New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve.)
- This is humanity’s first attempt at reaching the farthest object in space to which we’ve ever been.
Per APL: At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule's size and shape so far. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. The direction of Ultima's spin axis is indicated by the arrows. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI; sketch courtesy of James Tuttle Keane
Needless to say, the first moments of 2019 were out of this world for all of humanity. You can relive this historic day over and over again… at least I know I will. The bright minds of APL, SwRI, and NASA worked on New Horizons for almost 20 years, often using AGI’s Systems Tool Kit (STK) in truly innovative ways. For example:
- With round-trip light times delays reaching up to 12 hours, it was crucial to develop detailed and precise mission plans far in advance. STK helped operators avoid sending any incorrect message to the spacecraft.
- Imagery from the spacecraft enabled visualization of target bodies within STK and instantaneously uploaded images of Ultima Thule. These capabilities allowed for specific pointing in the reference bodies’ latitude/longitude coordinates.
- Specific tools allowed for verification of pointing solutions in various coordinate frames and maneuver planning using Analysis Workbench and Astrogator.
To our amazing customers on the New Horizons mission, congratulations and thank you for bringing us along on this journey! We can’t wait for what else 2019 has in store!