New Horizons probe headed for Ultima Thule

by Greg Mayer

NASA’s New Horizons probe will be making a near approach to a distant object in the Kuiper Belt, nicknamed “Ultima Thule”, tomorrow, Jan. 1, 2019, Chicago time. You can follow the progress at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory New Horizon’s webpage, with links to televised events here.

An artist’s conception of the flyby (from NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI).

Televised events are ongoing, and as I write this, a briefing is being streamed on NASA TV’s YouTube channel.

Brian May, the astrophysicist, who is a scientific collaborator on the New Horizons project, will be releasing a new song, “New Horizons”, to commemorate the voyage. It will be broadcast just after midnight, New York time, and should be shown on NASA TV. (May is perhaps better known as the guitarist from Queen.)

“Thule” was a place described by the 4th century BC Greek traveler Pytheas as being 6 days’ sail north of Britain, and “Ultima Thule” became a phrase meaning “the furthest place on Earth” (it is also, I have just learned, the name of a planet in Star Trek: DS 9). “Thule”, or some variant thereof, has been given as a name to a variety of places, most notably part of northern Greenland, where there is a US-Canadian-Danish air base. Officially named 2014 MU69, the Kuiper Belt Object’s nickname refers to its having the distinction of being the furthest object in the Solar System to ever be closely observed by man.


  1. Serendipitydawg
    Posted December 31, 2018 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    The Deep Space Network page currently has 5 active antennas talking to the probe and one other committed (or possibly on teardown). I imagine things are pretty busy, and exciting, at NASA right now.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 31, 2018 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      Down to three now – the Canberra dishes. No data coming down (the spacecraft is oriented for science, not communications) so I assume the dishes are looking for abort signals.

  2. Serendipitydawg
    Posted December 31, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Curses! Blew the link.

    Oh well, here it is, in case anyone wants to look 🙂

  3. Posted December 31, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    It’s also a place in “Star Trek” 👍🏼

    • davidintoronto
      Posted December 31, 2018 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      … and a planet on Space:1999 (the old Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series).

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 31, 2018 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        Appears on several Classical era maps, sometimes referencing identifiable places (Orkneys or Faroes, Iceland, Greenland), sometimes as a marine cognate of “here be dragons”.

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 31, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink


  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 31, 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I see the date and that it’s Chicago time, but I don’t see the time Chi-town time.

    • Posted December 31, 2018 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      See the link in the OP on televised events; it gives times of various events in Eastern Standard (i.e. New York) Time.


      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 31, 2018 at 11:31 pm | Permalink


  6. Posted December 31, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    I find one of the most amazing things about this flyby is that it takes over 6 hours for light to travel one way between Earth and the New Horizons spacecraft. This can be taken two ways: (1) light is fast but not that fast or (2) Ultima Thule is really far away.

    • Mark R.
      Posted December 31, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      (3) Space is a vast and lonely place.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 31, 2018 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        (4) Human beings are impatient.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 31, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

          If the “Breakthrough Starshot” project goes ahead, then the two-way time for transmissions will be up to 7 years.
          Some people reading this blo^H^H^Hwebsite “live” today are likely to be fretting at that wait.

          • rickflick
            Posted December 31, 2018 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

            I looked it up. “Breakthrough Starshot is a research and engineering project by the Breakthrough Initiatives to develop a proof-of-concept fleet of light sail spacecraft named StarChip, to be capable of making the journey to the Alpha Centauri star system 4.37 light-years away.”
            And just what are these craft supposed to do when they get there? Send a telegram? At 1/2 the speed of light they would take 8.7 years to get their and the telegram would be received after about 14 years. The younger members of the research team would likely still be alive, so perhaps there would be a sense of fulfillment and completion.

            • David Evans
              Posted January 1, 2019 at 4:16 am | Permalink

              I imagine that by the time this is launched we will have a much better idea of what planets exist in the target system. They would be programmmed to send back spectral and other data on those planets, particularly anything suggestive of life.

              • rickflick
                Posted January 1, 2019 at 6:14 am | Permalink

                It would be nice if the spacecraft could be programmed to go into orbit around the star and monitor the planets for a period of years. Perhaps land on them and send a little sample of whatever slime might exist back to us. 20 or 30 years round trip.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted January 1, 2019 at 9:32 am | Permalink

              8.7 years to get there, but only 12.2 years for data to come back.
              Have you ever worked with 1 bit/second data? It makes you really, really wish for 2 bits/second.
              (Sorry, currently watching the “Eyes” website for DSN status. )
              Once you’ve gone to the effort of building your “launching lasers” there is no reason to not keep launching the things, to provide a “bucket brigade” low power return data line.
              (They got a carrier wave. And a signal.)

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted January 1, 2019 at 9:49 am | Permalink

              Sorry, where was I? Hit the wrong button. Bucket brigades do slow the signal, but not hugely.
              The “Starshot” has interesting potential. In particular, by starting the deceleration well this side of the half-way mark you can actually bring the spacecraft to a relative halt in the target system using the solar sail. Which opens up a metric shitton of possibilities. There are also trajectory designs that can drop the spacecraft to “rest” in Proxima orbit by doing a slingshot and aerobrake manoeuvre around the stellar wind of Alpha+Beta.
              Build your “launching lasers” on the Moon and you’ll get a launch window for a day or so every month. But in the same month you’ll get launch opportunities for several other target star systems. Verily, we live on the edge of “interesting times”. Of course, humankind will probably kill ourselves or bomb ourselves back into the stone age before we do that, but that’s just a way of answering the Fermi Paradox.

              • rickflick
                Posted January 1, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

                The way things so often happen, we’d probably get halfway down the road to stellar discovery when, BOOM! Out of the blue(so to speak) some nerd would invent warp drive and put all those engineers off on a new project. Humans to Alpha Centuri in 20 minutes. Bring your cell phone and lots of fresh film, you’ll want to take pictures. (no pets please. Weightless, they vomit).

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted January 1, 2019 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

                Weightless vomiting (and otherwise shedding) pets will be put in CO2/O2-permeable but fluid-impermeable bag and sealed at the check-in gate. You will be given a device capable of opening the bag as you leave the baggage hall, but you will be charged for clean-up costs if you open the bag on airport property.
                There is probably a law of nature that the law-breaking laws of nature (like your 20-min-to-Alpha drive) only get discovered when just doing things the brute force hard way. Rutherford (in the personas of his graduate students), for example, was tediously mapping the distribution of matter in the “plum pudding” model of the atom, when he discovered the nucleus. Hundreds of thousands of scintillations recorded and logged.

      • Posted December 31, 2018 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

        (3′) Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.


      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 31, 2018 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

        In the outer solar system, the typical spacing between “continent-size” bodies (Pluto-Charon, Ultima Thule, any of the about 2000 KBOs with characterised orbits) is similar to the Earth-Sun distance, which contains three planets and several hundred asteroids.

        • rickflick
          Posted December 31, 2018 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

          lots of room to maneuver. I suppose collisions were much more frequent 5 billion years ago and then tapered off to near zero. Maybe a nice place to retire.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted January 1, 2019 at 9:26 am | Permalink

            Yeah, that’s one of the questions the mission is intended to address. I’ve seen estimates that the crater count might be as low as a few dozen if MU69 really has spent all it’s time in the “Cold Classical Kuiper Belt” (“Cold” referring to the dynamics, not the thermodynamics), compared to the tens of thousands on Pluto-Charon, which has the dynamics of a body that was somewhere else and then was scattered to it’s current orbit.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted January 1, 2019 at 4:29 am | Permalink

      Well, since in our universe nothing travels faster than light, I’d go for option 2 🙂
      The Kuiper belt is far compared to other planats.
      IIRC there is even a more distant part of our solar system, the Oort cloud. It is a ‘not-yet-observed’ cloud of comets reaching up to halfway our nearest star.

  7. Mark R.
    Posted December 31, 2018 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the added commentary on the etymology of Ultima Thule. Thule sounds like a name out of Lord of the Rings.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 31, 2018 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      Tolkein knew his Classics – his day job was understanding Olde Ynglish, Oldier Norse and Icelandic and how they contributed to forming Modern English. So a name made up by classical authors to refer to places in the distant north, when they did have some contact with people from that area – well, it sounds like Tolkein’s job was done well.

      • Mark R.
        Posted December 31, 2018 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

        Well put.

  8. Mike Deschane
    Posted December 31, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    It took two years to download the science and image data from New Horizon’s Pluto encounter. At 2000 bits per second! Not only does it take a long time for the photons to travel but they get really spread out.

  9. Frank Bath
    Posted December 31, 2018 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Must Ultima Thule be pronounced Ultima Tooley? Where’s the mystery?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 31, 2018 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      Apparently, it’s an Americanism. The UK pronunciation remains “THEW-lee”, and I’m sure next week’s “Sky at Night” special will litter the cutting room floor with “what did you say?” sections.

  10. Posted January 1, 2019 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  11. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted January 1, 2019 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    I think the in classical times Ultima Thule referred to far away parts that are now considered parts of Norway, Iceland or even Greenland. Can’t remember the source though.

  12. Jon Mummaw
    Posted January 1, 2019 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Brian May’s new song “New Horisons” is now up on YouTube.

  13. Serendipitydawg
    Posted January 1, 2019 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    My friend is watching Nasa live and they are getting data. According to the DSN page it is at a massive 500 bits per second – and at that distance this is no sarcastic use of the word massive! Mind you, it is going to take them a wee while to download the mass of data that they accumulated (fingers crossed 😀 ).

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted January 1, 2019 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      I just came here to post that same. 500bits/second is an awful lot better than 1 bps.
      This is just a “health check” on the spacecraft (all major systems reported green), which will then go back to imaging the body. The main data will be coming down over the next couple of years.
      As the spacecraft gets further from the target the already low chance of a collision that destroys or disables the spacecraft continues to decrease. So we can fairly confidently anticipate getting most of the data down. The remaining major hazards are a cosmic ray strike bowdlerising one or more bits of the data (manageable) or scrambling the operating software (also manageable for many cases).

  14. Andrea Kenner
    Posted January 1, 2019 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    This is incredibly cool! Thanks for sharing it!

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