NASA’s New Horizons sends science back from the far edge of the solar system

The new year began with a mighty space triumph from a probe that three years ago had already made history. NASA’sNew Horizons planetary probe, which in July 2015 revealed Pluto to be a strange and vibrant world, flew by a Kuiper Belt object called Ultima Thule, over 4 billion miles away. Ultima Thule is the farthest object to have ever been encountered by a probe launched from the planet Earth.

The first images reveal a world made from two smaller rocks that merged together billions of years ago in a collision that NASA describes as “no faster than two cars in a fender bender.” Ultima Thule is about 20 miles in length by 10 miles in width at its widest, rotating in space. The strange new world looks like a giant snowman, minus the stick arms, carrot nose, and coal eyes and mouth.

ADVERTISEMENT

The New Horizons scientists, led by Principal Investigator Alan Stern, were ebullient about what they have found. After the encounter with Pluto, New Horizons would have been lucky to have encountered a second world half as impressive. Ultima Thule is, in its own way, as wondrous as Pluto. Scientists believe that the Kuiper Belt world is comprised of the material with which the solar system was formed, pristine, frozen in time.

The kinds of scientific insights that New Horizons’ flyby of Ultima Thule will garner are currently beyond evaluation. But, in the coming months, as the spacecraft beams back the data it accumulated, our knowledge of what resides at the edge of the solar system, beyond what was known, will advance in a single leap.

Why is the United States conducting missions like New Horizons? NASA estimates that the mission is costing American taxpayers $700 million. Surely, one might ask, more pressing priorities exist on Earth than allowing a few scientists to publish papers about a world that few Americans know or care about?

The brief answer is that just as wealth is better than poverty and good is better than evil, knowledge is better than ignorance. And one might add to that, exploration is better than staying at home navel-gazing. If Americans agree about nothing else, they should agree about those things.

Of course, hostility to science and space exploration has been a running sore among certain portions of the political elite, from the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) who waged war on NASA from the early days of Apollo to the newly-elected Rep. Lizzie Fletcher’s (D-Texas) campaign mocking her opponent’s support for space missions like the Europa Clipper. It would be better if scientists and explorers could win knowledge from the universe, more valuable than the gold the Spanish conquistadors lusted for, unimpeded by grasping politicians.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the meantime the scientists of New Horizons will analyze the data sent back from Ultima Thule, sharing it with the world in scientific papers and other publications. Most will marvel at the glory of it, that human beings could accomplish such things.  The new knowledge will be filed away, added to what astronomy students must learn.

And, who knows? What is being wrought in the next days, weeks, and months may, sooner or later, have a practical use. Perhaps centuries from now, human beings will follow in the wake of New Horizons, searching for what resources could be wrested from the Kuiper Belt for a human civilization that has gone multi-planetary.

In the meantime, New Horizons has been pronounced healthy and ready for new discoveries, remarkable for a voyage of 13 years and counting. Other worlds in the vast Kuiper Belt await its visit with even more knowledge and glory to be gained.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”