It was 30 minutes past midnight on January 1, 2019. We had just rung in the New Year but wanted to do another countdown – the one we had all been waiting for.
I found myself in an enormous amount of engineers, scientists and general space lovers. Many were dressed in cocktail dresses and suits for the occasion, while others wore shirts and jackets adorned with the NASA logo. Alan Stern stood on a stage in front of the room. He was surrounded by dozens of small children, many of whom also wore NASA clothing. A little girl was even dressed in an orange space suit.
The clock showed 12:32 ET. In just a minute, a space ship called New Horizons would pass a rock the size of New York City, about 4.1 billion kilometers from the hustle and bustle of Times Square, on the edge of the solar system.
"At this moment as we speak and celebrate this event, New Horizons takes the riskiest observation," Stern said into a microphone and picked up the crowd. The room was buzzing with excitement, and groups of people regularly burst into cheers. Many waved tiny American flags in the air.
Soon the countdown started. "Five four three two one! Go on, New Horizons!" The sound of false fireworks filled the room as the kids threw confetti into the air on stage, and people in the crowd cheered and smiled, hugs and handshakes abound. It was midnight again – except that there was more power this time.
As exciting as it was, it was premature, none of us knew whether the spaceship had passed this rock or not There are no Reality TV camera crews in the Outer Solar System that stream live the antics of robotic space explorers, and even if that were the case, all content would run with a massive delay. "New Horizons is so far out in the Solar System that it is It takes six hours for a radio signal to reach us here on Earth, meaning we can never know what New Horizons does in real time.
So we all had just celebrated something that we had hoped had just happened.
But the team that runs New Horizons – many were with me in the room – had been preparing for this moment for years and they wanted a party to celebrate. The commands to the spacecraft were elaborated long ago and beamed to the vehicle. All the spacecraft had to do was play as it was said.
Fortunately, New Horizons has been through all this before. Three and a half years earlier, the spaceship shot from the dwarf planet Pluto and shot the first close-ups of the little world. This event was a great success that caught the nation's attention. But when the flyby was over, New Horizons continued to zoom in through the solar system to meet another rock – an object called MU69 in 2014.
This object was a mystery. We did not even know it existed four years ago. Scientists discovered it in 2014 with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which is orbiting Earth. But to pursue it was a challenge. MU69 is about 100 times smaller than Pluto and is tiny and far out, which makes it very hard to see. Until we drove past, the only images we had of the object were small light specifications or blobs that were just a few pixels wide. Nobody in the team really knew what to expect.
But New Horizons was on the verge of seeing up close, revealing for the first time what such an object looks like. This strange rock is located in an area of the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt. He is unlike anything we have studied up close. It is so small and so far from the sun that it has remained relatively unchanged since the beginning of the solar system. Scientists believe that in the early days of our solar system, many small objects such as MU69 eventually merged into planets and moons.
MU69 was perfectly positioned for New Horizons to pass the object on its journey past Pluto. With the entire flyby automated, fans, team members, and reporters gathered in Laurel, Maryland for this historic event. The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University has a mission operations center where the team can monitor inbound and outbound spacecraft signals. As the flyby passed in the early hours of New Year's Day 2019, it also meant that the crew was ready to celebrate in style.
In keeping with the theme of the night, a huge hall was equipped with glitter and balloons. Guests were offered New Year's party hats and streamer. People could be photographed in front of the display with the mission logo of New Horizons. There were huge white posters that the guests could sign to fulfill the spacecraft's best wishes.
This party was also very busy. Johns Hopkins allowed members of the media and mission scientists to bring guests. After all, it was New Year's Eve – a time to spend with loved ones. Toddlers sprinted across the room as children ran after their parents, some of whom were more interested in their smartphone than in the celebrations. I carried my fiancé with him and asked him to take pictures for this article.
Before midnight, scientists stopped at New Horizons Panels and described the science they hoped for with the spaceship and how we study the outer solar system. Over time, the room became more and more crowded as people became livelier and more talkative. There were also some celebrities present – in particular the Queen guitarist Brian May, who is also a celebrated astrophysicist. It was clear that after midnight he wanted to make a song dedicated to Mission New Horizons. "My song, my track, my anthem were shaped by the human mind and tried to discover the universe," May said earlier in the day.
I've set myself the task of talking to some of the New Horizons team members I interviewed earlier. I asked one, Alex Parker, how he felt now when we finally saw this thing. He was instrumental in finding MU69, and I could not imagine what it would feel like to finally see something up close that helped you find it. "It's not quite real at this point," Parker said. "It's something I've been working on for over a decade." He added, "I'm not quite into it."
Midnight was coming soon. The guests were given plastic cups with champagne. After celebrating the New Year, everyone tried to calm down as May introduced his song to the angry crowd. The hall was immediately filled with electric guitar riffs, droning drums, and May's lyrics like "New Horizons for Exploring / New Horizons No One Has Seen." A projector near the ceiling showed an animated music video with images of the spaceship whirling through space. It was impossible not to giggle the scene. A spaceship, rocking and rolling.
When the countdown ended in the flyby, the magic of the night quickly subsided and we fled as fast as we could – sleep was now a top priority. We had to be back in the auditorium in just a few hours to confirm that this spacecraft had actually survived. After the flyby, New Horizons would send a signal to Earth to let the team know that it is good health. This signal should arrive on January 1st at 10:30 (ET). We drove to our hotel and I fell asleep when I hit the pillow.
It looked like we were a second later, we were back in Johns Hopkins. The same amount was drastically muted. I caught a few yawns and watched people gather around the free coffee machines.
We all registered in a nearby auditorium and took our seats. From there we looked at a huge screen on which people watched. It was a live view of Mission Missions where the mission officials were watching the data from New Horizons as they entered. Compared to the excitement of yesterday, the auditorium felt like a grave. People spoke in subdued tones, but most of them were silent. Everyone wanted to know what the data revealed. The room felt tight as the unspoken pressure weighed on everyone. Suddenly my stomach turned.
But then New Horizons Mission Manager Alice Bowman started to smile on the screen and the auditorium burst into nervous laughter. Are there good news? She quickly began to list the status of each subsystem of New Horizons.
"Thermal reports green status," she said as the auditorium burst into wild applause. She did that for each of the systems, including vehicle propulsion, power supply, computer storage, and more. After going through the checklist, she got up and told the room:
"We have a healthy spaceship," she said. "We've just made the most distant flyby."
The crowd in the auditorium broke out. There was no countdown to this celebration, and the room was filled with people asleep, but the applause and applause overwhelmed the excitement of the previous night.
There is still much to learn about MU69. To get all the juicy details from the flyby, a lot of waiting time is required. New Horizons needs a long time to return its data, so we could not get the first close-up until the day after the flyby. (And now we know that this object looks like a lumpy snowman.) In fact, it will take 20 months for all this information to come to Earth. That said, there is still a lot to count, but at least we know that our premature celebration was not in vain.