Ultima Thule: NASA’s New Horizon takes humanity’s most distant step

Includes personal interview with NASA's associate administrator.

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Ultima Thule: NASA’s New Horizon takes humanity’s most distant step

Photos of Ultima Thule from NASA.

Photos of Ultima Thule from NASA.

Photos of Ultima Thule from NASA.

Photos of Ultima Thule from NASA.

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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was tasked with the exploration of the Kuiper Belt–a large, cold region that extends past Neptune’s orbit. While the original mission was to better understand the composition of Pluto and Charon, it continued deeper into the “third zone” of the solar system once that task was completed. On January 1st, it discovered two masses which were stuck orbiting one another–this mass is named Ultima Thule.

“Ultima Thule is a Kuiper Belt Object, which is an icy planetary body,” NASA associate administrator Stephen Jurczyk said. “From the New Horizons’ images, we’ve discovered that Ultima Thule is a “contact binary”, consisting of two connected spheres. (It) measures 19 miles in length. The larger sphere, Ultima, (is) 12 miles across, and the smaller sphere, Thule, (is) 9 miles across.”

Because the Ultima Thule collided with relatively low velocity, the objects are fairly intact and well-preserved. This makes it relatively easy to analyze, which is significant as the composition may date back to the beginning of our solar system.

“Astronomers think the icy objects of the Kuiper Belt are remnants left over from the formation of the solar system,” Jurczyk said. “So, making observations of these objects is like looking back in time to the birth of the solar system. The images provide a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time. Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form–both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy.”

This understanding can lead to more accurate predictions of the future of our solar system.

“By studying how our solar system formed,” Jurczyk said. “We may be able to determine how it will evolve in the future, which could be important for determining how our planet will change over time. In addition to the scientific discoveries made by this mission, we (also) advanced our engineering capabilities.”

Some wonder why this revelation, or space travel in general, matters in this day and age. While the immediate benefits of space travel can be intangible, the long-term effects can be felt in everyday life.

“Space travel is the next step in humanity evolving (as it is) the next stage of advanced technology,” junior Jonathan Mayes said. “It can provide natural resources from other bodies, like the moon. Plus, ordinary everyday people are already benefiting from (space exploration). Just look at satellites (and sensors). Satellite technology is something used everyday by (the masses through cell phones and GPS).”

Furthermore, discoveries in the macroscopic studies of the universe can be found in other scientific disciplines–such as the testing of organisms in space or the discovery of new chemical compounds. The nearly unlimited applications can result in inspiration and hope among the younger generations.

This leads to debate on whether this arguably crucial research should be funded by the government. Some say that government funded space travel is essential as it allows most information to become open-domain.

“The government should fund scientific discoveries,” physics teacher Caroline Hess said. “Because then they own those discoveries and can use them for the good of the people. (When I researched semiconductor crystals grown in space) to compare the effects of gravity, it was privately funded in part, but it also required the government to have provided that opportunity.”

Others argue that private organizations can handle the financing on their own.

“Most of the advancements you see today are from private organizations,” Mayes said. “For example, SpaceX (has created reusable) rocket boosters that can land themselves, so the government can fund some of the space travel, but private organizations already do a good job.”

There are importance in various aspects of space travel, including understanding the composition and history of celestial bodies, searching for habitable planets as climate change pollutes ours, and continuing manned space travel for the sake of exploration.

“We should continue to extend human presence out into the solar system,” Jurczyk said. “(Because of the International Space Station, we can now observe) the long-term effects of the space environment on the human body and how to mitigate them. (We can eventually) exploit resources on the moon (so we) can reduce the amount of (launch) supplies need(ed) for support missions (beyond the) Earth-Moon system.”

Jurczyk also outlined how missions with robotic spacecrafts can answer pressing fundamental questions.

“What are other planetary systems like?” Jurczyk said. “Is there life on (these other many Earth-like) planets? How do stars and planets form? How did Earth form and evolve? How will they evolve in the future? What are the origins and evolutions of the universe? How will it evolve? What is dark matter and dark energy?”

Even as Ultima Thule holds a lot of informational promise, there is still an unaddressed endless stream of questions that could arise from said data. However, the discovery and revelations are what people find so fascinating about space-travel.

“(It is) the aspect of having something bigger than ourselves,” librarian Natalie Strange said. “(It is the fact that) we have to work together to accomplish (a common goal). Growing up in this environment with a very hopeful sense of exploration and not need-based exploration (makes it so magical).”

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