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Why the latest New Horizons flyby represents a space exploration milestone

On this New Year’s Day, NASA has a special reason to celebrate: Its spacecraft New Horizons has made a successful flyby of Ultima Thule, an object orbiting in space about four billion miles from Earth. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Jeffrey Brown to explain the immense difficulty of this mission and its larger significance for the U.S. space program.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    NASA headed for the real outer limits, four billion miles from Earth, on a mission that inspired a slightly unusual New Year's celebration.

    Jeffrey Brown launches our story with this report.

  • Alan Stern:

    I don't know about all of you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It was a spectacular way to bring in the new year, as NASA scientists confirmed that the New Horizons spacecraft had successfully reached the farthest object ever explored, a small icy world called Ultima Thule.

    New Horizons arrived three-and-a half years after it had flown past Pluto and 13 years after the craft, the size of a minivan, first left Earth.

    Ultima Thule is a billion miles farther than Pluto, located in what's called the Kuiper Belt on the outer edge of our solar system. It's small, about 20 miles across, and, as seen in the first rudimentary images, seems to be shaped like a bowling pin.

  • Alan Stern:

    Now, the image that I'm about to show you is the best image of Ultima that we got pre-flyby. And it's OK to laugh, but it's better than the one we had yesterday.

    (LAUGHTER)

    There it is. Meet Ultima.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Alice Bowman:

    We are definitely looking forward to getting down the science data, so all of our scientists and the world can see what the outer solar system, the origins of our solar system have to hold for us, what surprises.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The celebration, children, along with the science team and guests, began last night at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, at the moment New Horizons was scheduled to fly by and take photos of Ultima Thule.

    One of those celebrating, astrophysicist Brian May, who also happens to be lead guitarist for the rock band Queen. He wrote a new song for the occasion.

  • Brian May:

    This mission, to me, represents more than the mission itself. It actually represents to me the spirit of adventure, discovery and inquiry which is inherent in the human spirit.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    New images of Ultima Thule are expected to be sent back to Earth in the coming days.

    And for more on this mission and what it took to get there, we're joined by our own resident space expert, Miles O'Brien, from Vero Beach, Florida.

    Miles, welcome. Happy new year to you.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Same to you, Jeff.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, tell us more about the mission of New Horizons. What's it after so far from home?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's looking for really our origins, Jeff.

    When you go out to this very distant aspect, this very distant place in our solar system, the so-called Kuiper Belt, there are a lot of cold bodies that are orbiting around there in a deep freeze, and they have been pretty much left there in that deep freeze, undeterred, for 4.5 billion years.

    Pluto is in the Kuiper Belt. This is one of the other objects in the Kuiper Belt. And the idea is, if you can understand these objects well, you can really see whether we all came from and know a little bit more about the formation of all the planets.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, this particular object, Ultima Thule, which has a wonderful name, which sounds maybe like a Marvel character or a rock band or something, right, what's the importance of it?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, it's a target of opportunity, for one thing.

    So, when New Horizons launched in 2006, it headed for Pluto. And in the summer of 2015, we had that amazing flyby of Pluto. But they still had some gas in the tank, if you will. And so they decided to start picking another location to fly by.

    The reason it's interesting is, it's so likely that much has changed there over the past 4.5 billion years. So going into the deep freeze and learning what is in that deep freeze is of great interest to scientists.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, how difficult was this to find it, to get there, to take the photos? And how did they manage to do it?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You know, it boggles the mind, frankly, to think about the navigation task that was entailed there and how easily it could have gone awry.

    What's really kind of interesting about it as well as, this is a drive-by at 30,000 miles an hour. And during the time, the key time, when all the science is gathered, there is no direct communication between the spacecraft and Earth. It's pointing its camera and antennas at the object.

    And so everything had to be kind of locked and pre-loaded in. And they had to do some — frankly, a little bit of educated guessing as to where to aim the lens as it flew by. We won't know for certain how well they did probably until tomorrow.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, Miles, we did a remembrance the other night of the 50th anniversary of Apollo, of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to see the other side of the moon.

    And I was thinking about how that's an earlier age of space exploration. When you look at what they're doing now, with a mission like this, put that in context. Where are we at these days?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, this is the farthest body that has ever been explored by a spacecraft. And it's actually its second flyby. So it's picked up kind of this target of opportunity for science as well.

    But I think what it tells us is that NASA is still in business. There's this assumption that because the shuttle program has been retired, and there is no NASA capability for putting astronauts into space at the moment, that somehow NASA is not in the game anymore.

    To the contrary, these missions are fascinating, exciting, and takes us to new world, even if there aren't people putting footprints on them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There's one other poignant aspect to this, I think, Miles.

    The Ultima Thule was actually seen first by the Hubble telescope, and a woman named Nancy Roman, who is known as the mother of the Hubble, just died earlier this week. Tell us about her.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, Nancy Roman shattered every glass ceiling you could imagine.

    As a child growing up in Reno, Nevada, she looked to the skies and became fascinated with astronomy, and never let go, and ultimately got her degree at the University of Chicago, made her way to NASA.

    Every job she took, she was a pioneer, ultimately became the first female executive at NASA and the first chief astronomer, period. And she managed to make Hubble happen. She retired before it was launched, but she still stayed close to that program.

    And her memory lives on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, quite an achievement all around.

    Miles O'Brien, thanks very much.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Jeff.

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