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Questions and Answers with Alan Stern of New Horizons



NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to a January 1 th Ultima Thule fly-by, a distant Kuiper Belt object 1.6 billion kilometers from Pluto.

The encounter will be the farthest planetary flyby of history. What New Horizons will see is a mystery, and Alan Stern, the mission's lead investigator, is prepared for confusion.

The rugged, piano-sized probe designed and built by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, has a milestone in exploration: it passed Pluto in July 2015. [NASA’s New Horizons Mission in Pictures] [NASA’s New Horizons Mission in Pictures] [1

9659002] Stern, who is based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, wrote the book along with astrobiologist David Grinspoon – "The Hunt for New Horizons: In the Epic First Mission to Pluto" (Picador, 2018).

Space.com recently met with Stern to talk about New Horizons and the upcoming record flyby of Ultima Thule, which scientists believe is about 37 km wide.

Space.com: What is the overall health of New Horizons near Ultima Thule?

Star: The spacecraft is essentially in perfect health. As for the engines, we divide them between the A and B sides of New Horizons. So we will not let them run until they break. Ultimately they are life-limited, like your tires. All scientific instruments are in good health. We are on course and can not ask for more at this time.

  Artistic representation of the New Horizons spacecraft of NASA, which flew on January 1, 2019 by Ultima Thule. Ultima is an object of the Kuiper Belt that orbits 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto; The imminent encounter will be the farthest planetary flyby of history.

Artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which flies through Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019. Ultima is an object of the Kuiper belt orbiting 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto; The imminent encounter will be the farthest planetary flyby of history.

Photo credits: Johns Hopkins University of Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL / SwRI)

Space.com: What is the prospect of an extended mission after exploring this object on the Kuiper Belt?

Star: There may be another KBO flyby after this; we will see. For a five-year extended mission, we proposed leading us through 2021 to 50 astronomical units and studying the Kuiper Belt in various ways. [Note: One astronomical unit is the Earth-sun distance, about 93 million miles, or 150 million km.] We have to suggest for future extended missions. If science is good and the spacecraft stays healthy, I think we have an excellent chance. We are the only spaceship that can do that. Nobody else comes with a second mission. It really is a unique opportunity to do things that are not possible otherwise, and we still have a lot of propellant.

  The artist's concept for the New Horizons spacecraft encountering Pluto and its largest moon, Charon (foreground), in July 2015

Artistic concept of the New Horizons spacecraft launched in July 2015 on Pluto and his largest moon, Charon (foreground), hits.

Photo credits: NASA / Johns Hopkins University of Applied Physics / Southwest Research Institute / Steve Gribben / Alex Parker [19659015] Space.com: How Long Can New Horizons Work?

Star: In principle, New Horizons could continue to operate for another 15 or 20 years until the radioisotopic thermoelectric generator's output drops to the point where we can no longer operate the spacecraft.

Space.com: New Horizons represents the exploration of the unknown. You have to be curious about what's out there so far from the earth.

Star: Few people know that the solar system is so big. The gravitational force of the sun is strong enough to hold comets circling around 100,000 astronomical units in the Oort cloud. That's 3,000 times as far as Pluto. As sunlight grows weaker with the square of the distance, finding things that are so far out is very difficult.

Space.com: So we should expect to be surprised what the spaceship can find.

Star: We just scratched the surface of the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. Personally, I expect from my work, which I have made and published, that not only do we find dozens, but possibly hundreds of other planets. These include the search for smaller planets in the Kuiper belt and larger planets in the Oort cloud.

I think it's weird if someone talks about finding Planet X. We will find Planet X, Planet Y, Planet Z and a very large number more. Forensically, there are indications of the solar system that there used to be a large number of planets, most of which were scattered at great distances. [Our Solar System: A Photo Tour of the Planets]

  Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, and planetary scientist David Grinspoon described the mission in their exciting book, "Chasing New Horizons," available in print, e-book, and audiobook.

Alan Stern, New Horizons Mission Lead investigator and planetary scientist David Grinspoon described the mission in their exciting book, "Chasing New Horizons," available in print, e-book, and audiobook.

Credit: Picador

Space.com: What is the message you receive from the public as a result of your book tour and discussions around the world?

Star: What I'm hearing is exploring Pluto has been incredibly inspiring for many people. I've had people, especially young people, who tell me that it's the best thing that ever happened in their lives, or that it's inspired them to become a Slacker to an A student. In a lecture, a gentleman stood up in the audience and said he was on the verge of suicide until he saw the New Horizons of Pluto fly by. He said he realized that there are so many amazing things to live for. Wow!

Those of us in the New Horizons project never expected this reaction. In this book, we explain that for my co-author David and I, the most important "discovery" was that the mission was so inspiring that it could change the lives of many people.

Space.com: New horizons flew past Pluto in July 2015, but this encounter seems to be a steady, steady stream of discoveries. Why so?

Star: I assume that from now on the scientific community will need a solid decade to get to the bottom of what New Horizons has taught us. If Pluto and its satellites were not so complex, that would not take that long … but it's a scientific wonderland full of puzzles. Alan Stern of New Horizons, based at the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “/>

Alan Stern, at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, the lead investigator of New Horizons.

Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA

Space.com: The flyby of Pluto and now a KBO is a symbol for exploration and investigation of the unknown. It seems the mission is a metaphor for surprise, even confusion.

Star: Go back to the early 1960s until the 1970s. These first missions to Mars, to Venus, to Mercury, to Jupiter … they all provided the same experience we had. This spaceship struck everything known by the telescope and showed us on each planet a much more complex and differentiated situation as well as new types of physical phenomena. We were always surprised and surprised.

The Pluto flyby has shown that nature has inspired us again. It was so surprising that I told colleagues from the New Horizons science team, after looking at the datasets, that we were likely to get an "A" for exploration, but an "F" for scientific prediction skills. [Pluto’s Heart: A Cosmic Valentine in Photos]

  New Horizons chief investigator Alan Stern (left) with a US brand imprint with a proposed update after exploring New Horizons Pluto in July 2015.

New Horizons chief investigator Alan Stern (left) with a print of an American brand with a proposed update after exploring the New Horizons Pluto spacecraft in July 2015.

Photo credits: Bill Ingalls / NASA

Space.com: So, your forecast on what you'll find at Ultima Thule

Star: New Horizons flies with almost one A million miles a day on the object too. It is a distant point until the day before the flyby. The next day, we get high-resolution images and other data. It is looking for an atmosphere that may be there or not. We will also study the KBO for moons and rings, we will map it, determine the surface composition, measure the temperature and more. The data will flow after the spacecraft passed on January 1st.

These data are transmitted to Earth not only for weeks but also for one and a half years. It will be late summer 2020 before we have any records on site. So expect that this is the gift that keeps giving.

Nothing like this has ever happened before. There has never been a mission to this object. We are studying something so wild … something that was so far from the sun where it was not developed, because the temperatures are so low that we have no parallel.

Ultima Thule may be something different than we've ever seen

Leonard David is the author of the forthcoming book "Moon Rush: The New Space Race," published by National Geographic in May 2019 becomes. The longtime author of Space.com, David, has been reporting on space industry for more than five decades. Follow us @SpaceTotcom or Facebook. This version of the story was posted on Space.com.


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