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By Carolyn Collins Petersen, TheSpacewriter
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Space Is the Place for Ultimate Explorations

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A Gift from New Horizons

This holiday season, and indeed, for much of this year, I have been reading books about space, even as I work on a new book of my own about astronomical observatories. I started with a re-read of Andy Chaikin’s magnificent A Man on the Moon and have worked my way through astronaut books, an exploration of the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, and—just in time for the Christmas season—a look at the Apollo 8 mission. It’s been quite a trip this year, looking at our past space explorations.

Of course, people haven’t ventured very far into space on their own. Our spacecraft have gone much farther than we will be going for quite a while. Until human missions venture out to Mars and beyond, we remain explorers (physically) of our own backyard.

Out to the Great Beyond

Where will YOU be when New Horizons passed by Ultima Thule?

That brings me to the upcoming visit to Ultima Thule that I mentioned in the last post. It’s the product of the work of thousands of people, many of whom have devoted their careers to it. It arrives at Ultima Thule, the most distant world ever to be visited by a spacecraft, a few minutes after midnight (Eastern time). That will make January 1st, 2019 an amazing gift to the world in more ways than one. Not only will we all still be on this magnificent planet, but a tiny spacecraft will be showing us the surface of a world that has floated in darkness in the Kuiper Belt for billions of years. As my friend Alan Stern (PI of the mission) would exclaim, “HOW cool is that??!”

In fact, Alan and the team are exulting over the fact that New Horizons has just begun official “flyby” duties. It entered that mode on Christmas Day, 2018. For the next week, our view of the solar system is going to get stretched out to the Kuiper Belt. He just tweeted

BREAKING…Signal has just been received at mission control, New Horizons has successfully started its flyby program of stored commands and the exploration of Ultima Thule 4 billion miles away! THIS IS IT FOLKS, FLYBY HAS BEGUN! Go New Horizons!!

The Long Road to Kuiper

It seems like a tale I’ve told a million times, one about exploration. The path to outer space began not with people landing on the Moon or even with the rocket designers of the early 20th century. It really started tens of thousands of years ago when some early ancestor wandered outside and looked up at those bright things in the sky. Not for the first time did they wonder about what those things were. Perhaps she looked at them and saw living beings. Or perhaps her companion saw little campfires that he thought were impossibly far away.

Whatever they imagined, they knew they were in the presence of something really amazing. It may have taken tens of thousands of years to figure out WHAT the stars are, but we eventually did. And, generations later, the umpty-up great-great-great-grandchildren of those stargazers are sending spacecraft to distant worlds, from the Moon to Ultima Thule.

It’s a Gift

Earthrise from the Moon

Earthrise from the Moon as shot by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders.

Fifty years ago, astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and James Lovell gave us a great holiday gift as they circled the Moon in the Apollo 8 spacecraft. It was a view of Earth as NO one had ever seen it before. It floated beyond the Moon, small, blue, bright and beautiful. Over the next few days, the New Horizons team will be giving US a new gift: the view of Ultima Thule. It’s one they’ve been creating for a long, long time. I hope we can all appreciate it.  Exploration isn’t for the lazy or the “quick buck” folks or the “shareholder value” beancounters, or those who deny that humans are capable of doing great things. It’s for the nimble, the hard-nosed, the scientific, the hard-working, and—paradoxically —the dreamers.

Want to follow along to Ultima Thule? There are amazing resources bringing the action to us, either at mission control or in our homes and offices. The New Horizons mission page at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics lab has a wealth of resources for all of us to follow the mission.  So, if you’re staying up all night on December 31, 2018, extend your partying a bit more. Raise a toast to New Horizons at Ultima Thule, and to the folks who brought us this amazing exploration.

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