As Ebenezer Scrooge found, Christmas Eve is a fitting time to reflect on the past, consider the present, and glance into the future. Scrooge wasn't thinking about space flight, though when he asked the ghost of his deceased partner, Marley, if he traveled fast, the reply was "On the wings of the wind."
To put this into context, the highest non-tornado wind speed ever recorded on Earth is 253 miles per hour, so for Scrooge’s time in Victorian England, this truly was fast. Compared to planes and rockets in the modern era of flight, however, it lags way behind. The cruising speed of a Boeing 747, for instance, is 550 miles per hour. Then there’s the International Space Station, which travels a bit more than 17,000 miles per hour while orbiting Earth once every 90 minutes.
A half century ago, the Apollo 8 spacecraft had to exceed speeds of 25,000 miles per hour in order to escape the pull of Earth’s gravity and head toward the Moon. Precisely 50 years ago this past Monday — Dec. 24, 1968 — Apollo 8 arrived at the Moon and orbited 10 times.
It was on this flight that astronaut Bill Anders captured one of the most compelling and influential pictures of all time, showing our home planet Earth against the backdrop of space. At that moment, Anders and his crewmates Frank Borman and Jim Lovell could look at the sum of all of humanity; that little ball was home to all 100 billion Homo sapiens — and their ancestors (unless we consider our ancestors were aliens) — who have ever lived.
Now, Alan Stern and his legion of engineers and scientists, including Lowell Observatory’s Will Grundy, are riding the wings of New Horizons on their quest to explore well beyond our Moon — nearly four billion miles, in fact. New Horizons is a spacecraft launched in 2006 to explore Pluto and an area of the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune known as the Kuiper belt. To be clear, Stern and company aren’t actually riding New Horizons and the spacecraft doesn’t have wings, which would be useless in airless outer space.
In any event, it is speeding to (486958) 2014 MU69, a Kuiper belt object that the New Horizons team nicknamed Ultima Thule, at a rate of more than 31,000 miles per hour. Ultima Thule is a medieval term meaning a distant, unknown world. Though the name is unofficial, it is more elegant and user-friendly in the public eye than the run-on of numbers and letters. The body itself is irregularly shaped and only measures about 20 miles in diameter, meaning it would roughly fit between downtown Flagstaff and Munds Park.
The New Horizons team, as well as a multitude of space enthusiasts around the world, anxiously looks forward to the coming days when the spacecraft passes within about 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule. Expected flyby time is Jan. 1, 12:33 a.m. at Mission Control in Maryland (10:33 p.m. on Dec. 31 in Flagstaff).
As when the spacecraft flew by Pluto in 2015, its instruments will capture images and make a variety of scientific observations of Ultima Thule. Then there will be the anxious period of waiting to get this data back to Earth — some six hours — and more time for processing.
New Horizons has quite a track record, with its 2015 flyby of Pluto unveiling a world far more dynamic and exciting than most people imagined. Now it will explore Ultima Thule, the farthest body ever visited by a spacecraft.
What will it reveal of this tiny world? We are about to find out. NASA had planned to provide special programming of flyby events via its television and digital outlets, from Dec. 28 through Jan. 3. However, these are currently not operating due to the government shutdown. If the shutdown continues through the flyby, then people interested in following the coverage can go to the New Horizons website http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/ or the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/jhuapl.