New Horizons Close Encounter with Kuiper Belt Object Ultima Thule Monday Night

This is the first Kuiper belt object that a spacecraft has visited. Nobody is sure what it will look like. Preliminary indications are that it seems kind of peanut shaped, and may end up being two small objects in contact (fused?) or orbiting each other very closely. (Or... this is for MR... it might be a relic alien starship that's been floating dead out there for millions of years... unlikely sure, but...)

Unclear how much viewers will initially be able to see. This thing is way out beyond forsaken and unloved former-planet Pluto. (With a giant heart on its side, it remains every child's favorite. They identify with it.) Not only will there be a speed-of-light delay in the signals arriving here, I believe that the data transmission rate is low so it will take some time to download data and photos. So the juicy details might not be made public immediately. Apparently the plan is for the spacecraft to blurt that it is awake and recording as it passes its target, then 4 to 5 hours later when it's done observing it will reorient to point its high-gain antenna at Earth and begin transmitting high-res photos and stuff.  

Schedule of streaming media events here:

NASA will have coverage (panel discussions with planetary scientists and live updates) here

And there will also be a stream from Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel MD (where the mission is being controlled) here (dunno if these are the same events that NASA will have, I imagine so):

There will be quick updates on New Horizons' twitter pages too:

More here
I Love watching new discoveries play out in real time!!

New Horizons is six light hours from Earth (six light-hours would seem to be 1/1,460'th of a light-year) so data on what it did last night (our time) is only now trickling in. Not only is there the relativistic delay, data transmission from that little vehicle so far away is slow. Imagine that little bar creeping along agonizingly slowly as you download something.

Jonathan McDowell seems to have access to the raw information almost as fast as NASA is receiving it and is translating it on his twitter page.

He says, "Signal received! And now in lock with telemetry. NH is alive... now to download system status.

RF (radio system) is green - all good there. Thermal state also good. What's "FC"? - flight control maybe? But what does that include in that context? GNC (Guidance, Nav and Control) and Propulsion and (electrical) Power green.

C&DH - command and data handling - good, the disk drive is pointing where it should be. The "SSR" is solid state recorder, which is basically a solid-state disk drive. It has 'pointers' which say how full the disk is. The fact that those pointers are where they are meant to be means that the expected number of files have been written to the drive.

Now they just have to copy the contents of the drive to a computer on Earth - sort of like doing a backup! That'll only take them about 2 years, to copy the full drive... but we'll get some data later today.

I'm told FC is probably flight computer. also "Planning" was green, which means they think NH actually used the right instruments in the right order for the right amount of time. So, everything looks good.

The one thing we don't yet green from yet is Navigation... and we don't know for sure if Ultima Thule is actually in any of the pictures. So still a few hours to be a bit nervous."

Edit: Jonathan McDowell's source for the above seems to be this video, originally played live on NASA TV and JHUAPL about an hour or two ago, showing the system status data first coming in and the various systems desks reporting their status. The data starts to arrive about 30 minutes into the video so you can skip forward to that.

Jonathan McDowell has gotten hold of this pre-encounter photograph of Ultima Thule apparently taken by LORRI (who is New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) as New Horizons was still approaching and blown up mercilessly (it's very pixilated) that shows that the object is very elongated. He speculates that it might be two objects in close proximity (a 'binary').

Some additional commentary on that photograph from the Planetary Society here

I still want it to be a derelict alien starship floating out there, perhaps with a propulsion unit and a habitation unit, connected by a thin neck. Given the scale, it could hypothetically be one of Science Fiction's generation starships. (Quiet down, MR. It's a nice speculation, but I'd guess that when we get a better view in a matter of hours, it will blow that idea out of the water.)

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New Horizons has its own music video! former Queen guitarist Brian May, who happens to have a PhD in astrophysics! (From Imperial College London, not too shabby.)
My Apple dictionary is pretty effin' good

Ultima Thule: a distant unknown region; the extreme limit of travel and discovery.

I'll say this...never considered the chance of our first contact with alien life being a derelict spaceship . Not expecting that with this adventure but it's something to think about.
(Jan 2, 2019 05:30 AM)Zinjanthropos Wrote: My Apple dictionary is pretty effin' good

Ultima Thule: a distant unknown region; the extreme limit of travel and discovery.

I'll say this...never considered the chance of our first contact with alien life being a derelict spaceship . Not expecting that with this adventure but it's something to think about.

No surprise that there's a short science fiction book named "Ultima Thule", dating back to 1961. One reviewer there even alerts us that it's in public domain and thereby available at While some seem to give it a thumbs-up, this guy who probably felt similarly drowsy reading old, "action-less" Asimov novels warns us that:

A little mid-century sci fi novella that spends way too much time discussing socioeconomic systems. No action. A strange read and despite its attempt at "deep thinking" comes across as ridiculous because of its heavy reliance on the trope of planets having a monoculture. Short enough read that I don't feel like I wasted my time, but there's not much here and I wouldn't recommend it.

Photos coming in: What the astronomers call a 'contact binary'.

These first photos are from an hour before closest approach and better high-res photos are expected to be downloaded in due course. Coloring of this object in visible light is distinctly red, like Pluto and most of the outer solar system bodies, due to organic chemistry on their surfaces.

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(Jan 2, 2019 09:08 PM)Yazata Wrote: Photos coming in: What the astronomers call a 'contact binary'. [...]

Right time of year for encountering a snowman in deep space.


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