Shockingly, it's been a whoppin' fourteen years to the day since the interplanetary space probe New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral at the speed of about 36,400 miles per hour – or roughly as fast as I drove off after handing in my final Philosophy paper for college graduation that same year. In fact, New Horizons is the fastest man-made object to ever be launched from Earth!
Image Credit: NASA
Being a part of NASA's New Frontiers program, the spacecraft was launched with the primary mission to perform a flyby study of the Plutonian system in 2015. Specifically, it was designed to find out more about the following for Pluto and Charon: surface composition, temperature and atmosphere, geology and morphology, and rings or additional satellites associated with them. The secondary mission was to eventually study some far out Kupier belt objects, or KBOs, in the next decade. And guess what? It just freakin' did!
Composite image of primordial contact binary Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 from New Horizons Spacecraft Data recently named Arrokoth
At the beginning of the month, New Horizons did a flyby of the most distant celestial thingiemerbobber ever explored – the trans-Neptunian object called 486958 Arrokoth, or Ultima Thule, which is likely a fossil from the beginning stages of our Solar System. Fun Fact: Ultima Thule, derived from classical and medieval literature, took on a metaphorical meaning of any distant place located beyond the borders of the known world.
So, what super cool sights has New Horizons encountered along its epic fourteen-year journey? Here's a quick recap: it tangoed with asteroid 132524 APL early on, flew by jumbo Jupiter in 2007 (which provided an awesome gravity boost and allowed for some general testing of the probe's equipment), went into hibernation mode for a stint and was brought back online in 2014 for its Pluto mission, began the approach phase for Pluto in early 2015 and by the middle of the year was orbiting above the planet’s surface, clocked in at comfortable cruising speeds of 52,000 miles per hour by the next year when it provided the final data for the Pluto flyby, confirmed the existence of a "hydrogen wall" (first detected in 1992 by the Voyager probes) at the outer edges of the Solar System in 2018, and has spent the remainder of the time making its way towards 486958 Arrokoth, arriving this month.
Personally, I'm stoked to hear about what scientists will find out regarding Ultima Thule and any secrets it can reveal about our place in the Solar System. Considering New Horizons is collecting as much data for Ultima Thule as it did for Pluto, but the KBO is more than a billion times farther from Earth than Pluto, it could be awhile before we really know anything substantial. God speed to all the brilliant brains behind the unraveling of data being sent back to Earth – we believe in you!