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New Horizons Reaches Ultima Thule (nytimes.com)
426 points by daegloe 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

I found this thread by Alex Parker very informative and fascinating.


The thread in an actually readable format: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1077986070128668674.html

I second on the fascinating and informative

And that was only the beginning of that mission

Wow this was an amazingly clear and accessible explanation of their process!

amazing how much exciting work there is to do in planetary science (let alone anything having to do with Space).

"Thule" was named by the Greek navigator Pytheas from Massalia around 330 BC. Historians think it refers maybe to the Faeroe islands, Greenland, or more probably Iceland. From this point the name stuck to refer as the farthest place in the North, some cold unknown. In medieval times, "Thule" being Iceland, "Ultima Thule" referred to Greenland.

I’ve been working a side project to build a more mobile friendly and scroll friendly version of NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day at http://lookupat.space

The most recent update hopefully makes it a lot more useable with including both attribution of the work and an explanation of what the picture is about. As always, there is a link to the original page, and I plan on adding sorting features soon.

I hope this helps more people get exposed to the beauty of outer space and the very awe inspiring things humans have done!

Awesome page! Any chance it could have a "click here for the next page" version? Autoload of new content messes with my mouse/browser/head in ways I don't like. But, otherwise great site!

I was going for an instagram, infinite-scroll vibe, so a change to paginated would stray from the original intention a bit. Any particular reason you don’t like the autoload? I may just have a poor implementation of it. :) Thanks for checking out the site though, I appreciate it!

Could you make it work without Javascript? Build pagination by default, then with JS, progressively enhance to infinite scroll. I had to enable JS for your domain and a few others before anything meaningful appeared. Your content turned out to be photos, which is something that you do not need JS for!

You don't need javascript to display photos, but for the functionality of simulating an "infinity-scroll" where images are fetched based on the position of the viewport relative to the bottom, I'm not sure how this is accomplishable without javascript (Javascript considered harmful? :P).

I'm certainly open to the idea of pagination if the agent has javascript disabled by default, but that would then require paginating 6800+ images and seems like it would impact performance moreso than the current method of fetching as the user scrolls (although, there is something to be said about my hacky implementation of infinity scroll).

I appreciate the feedback!

Thank you for this!!

Thank you for being one of the first to visit and enjoy it! :D

Reading that page in reverse chronological order was kind of humbling; to see where we came from on a specific subject.

It also reminded me of the astronomy course I took in university that taught me how much astronomy is about logical deduction. Deducing what must be there based on orbits and how it obscures light from stars, shadows, etc. And then going out there and validing all of it. That's beautiful.

Not sure why it wasn't more prominent, but for anyone else like that was wondering, "reaches" "zips by" and the other adjectives are indicating a distance of 2,200 miles.

As a computer vision/imaging person, that's a pretty far look for a 75mm (~3 inch) mirror. It's like trying to take a picture of the Empire State building in NYC from Las Vegas with a tripod telescope.

LORRI has a 8" primary mirror, not 3. Ralph has a 75mm mirror, but that's the secondary telescope; it does multispectral photography (6 bands) and infrared spectrometry.

Even with such a small primary mirror, New Horizons has a number of advantages. First, Ultima Thule is larger than Manhattan. Not exactly large, but certainly bigger than the Empire State Building.

Second, the mount is incredibly stable. There are basically no vibrations to speak of. As an amateur astronomer, I can tell you that the mount is one of the most important pieces of equipment in astrophotography. A mediocre telescope on a good mount will give good images. A good telescope on a mediocre mount will give mediocre images.

Third, the mirror itself is much better designed and manufactured than the average amateur astronomer's scope. Certainly better than any of mine.

Fourth, the sensor is cooled to very low temperatures, so it is way less noisy than the average consumer sensor.

Fifth, there is no atmosphere in the way. This is a huge advantage.

When all is said and done, LORRI will have a resolution on Ultima Thule's surface of about 60 feet. Certainly no Google Earth, but plenty good enough for the science objects of the flyby.

Ah, didn't know the LORRI was the primary and not the Ralph, thanks. So when do you think we'll see the LORRI images of Ultima Thule?

My point remains though, and it was just a general metaphor about how astounding the stuff they are trying to do is from an imaging perspective.

The images are LORRI images; however, because of bandwidth constraints (about 1000bps), these are lower-resolution versions of the LORRI images for press and initial science work. e.g. a one-tenth-resolution image takes about 3 hours to download. See here for a description of the sequence of transmissions:


EDIT: The full download of the gigabytes of data from the flyby will take 20 months to download.

Emily Lakdawalla wrote a great timeline here. http://www.planetary.org/blogs/emily-lakdawalla/2018/what-to...

The best shots won't be for a while, but hopefully the team received some informative images today or tonight and will be able to share them at tomorrow's press conference. As she notes, there is a chance that the first downloads will miss Ultima Thule entirely. The encounter was just that difficult.

As for LORRI and Ralph, can't we call them both "primary?" Only Ralph produces color images, so most color shots of Pluto are Ralph's (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/639/the-frozen-canyon...).

LORRI has higher resolution, which is why some of the most stunning shots of Pluto are black and white (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/652/plutos-majestic-m...).

Some images were produced by "painting" Ralph's colors onto LORRI's high resolution features (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/699/pluto-dazzles-in-...).

I really enjoyed this comment, thank you.

At least there is no pesky atmosphere in the way.

Wont know that until the pics are in. A thin layer of gas, an atmosphere, is a possibility. Pluto had bit of one.

Here's an interesting article on this flyby by Phil Plait: https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/get-ready-for-humanitys-most-d...

NASA press release at [0], with a better (pre-flyby) image of Ultima Thule.

[0] http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/News-Center/News-Article.php?page=20...

That’s the same image, rotated.

The timing is sensational: humanity begins 2019 with an astronomical milestone event.

Another one would be the Chinese landing their craft on the far side of the moon. No confirmed date, but within the next couple of days. https://www.npr.org/2019/01/01/680542096/chinas-lunar-lander...

Also, asteroid sample-return mission Osiris-REX acheived orbital insertion around its asteroid target.

Which was Really Hard, because that is a tiny object to use as a gravitational anchor. About the mass of a terrestrial mountain. The precision is incredible.


Wow. Scrolling backwards through the entries, how had I not seen this before? There’s a 3D movie exploring Pluto, I’m on my phone and it took me a minute to realize as I moved my phone around I could look all over at the scenery. Really great stuff!

It's unbelievably cool to have a device in your hand that opens up the gates to the rest of the universe. Something for us all to remember the next time we're tempted to bash the evils of technology.

Motivational videos by Erik Wernquist: New Horizons (for National Space Society): https://vimeo.com/132183032

Wanderers: https://vimeo.com/108650530

Casino's Grand Finale ( for JPL) : https://vimeo.com/210782375

Has there been any talk of further fly-by targets? I seem to recall there were a number of possible candidates after the Pluto fly-by, but I suppose the Thule visit might have ruled some or all of those others out.

I haven't found a definitive 'no' but with a bit of quick googling - the current mission extension runs until (at least) 2021 and there is very little onboard fuel for significant course updates. Some of the other potential targets were in fact ruled out by the selection of Ultima Thule. The extended mission for New Horizons calls for the spacecraft to conduct observations of, and look for ring systems around, between 25 and 35 different KBOs.

I'm curious what is the reason to think there would be ring systems around these objects? Aren't rings usually associated with planets much larger than earth, whereas these objects are much smaller?

Long-lasting rings would be - fundamentally all you need for a ring to form is some debris and a gravity well.

To be clear, something that "doesn't last long" on an astronomical timescale could still quite happily exist stably for several dozen human lifetimes.

They have to find another object first. They'll be looking using LORRI, but it was hard enough finding MU69 that the probability is pretty low. Regardless, they'll also be using NH like we still use the Voyagers, for instrument readings on the outer solar system as long as we can still receive signals (and the spacecraft is still operating).

Nothing concrete, but there probably will be another https://www.space.com/42808-nasa-new-horizons-possible-third...

Your reference says that there will be continued exploration, but doesn't mention another actual fly-by. Funding beyond 2021 isn't confirmed, and even if they top up the funding, they can't top up the manoeuvring fuel.

Well, in the other poster's defence, I thought "nothing concrete" covered things well enough, but these quotes from the article seem sanguine about the prospect:

"And we hope to hunt down one more KBO — one more Kuiper Belt object — and make an even more distant flyby in the 2020s," Stern added [...] New Horizons [...] has enough juice [...] to keep the power on through the mid to late 2030s, he said.”

The long range camera may help them see another.

Lets hope.

This article says it will take ~20 months to transmit the image data; by September 2020.


That’s for all of it. I’d imagine we start getting pieces faster than that. Latency is 6 hours, speed is roughly a kilobit?

Images to be posted here as they come in: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/soc/UltimaThule-Encounter/

Not much yet.

Live press conference


So cool.


I think, if we want to play 'what-about', then it's fair to say that the cost of the New Horizons mission ("approximately $700 million over 15 years", per Wikipedia) is a drop in the ocean compared to the US Dept of Defence's direct spending on the 2003-2010 Iraq war, which was more than $700 billion, which came just as much out of the wallet of the US taxpayer (who is both rich and poor, and separately, both content and suffering), and as a little-known side-effect, killed a bunch more people than New Horizons has so far.

Spending on space exploration has been in debate and protested since the 60's, and probably even earlier than that. Not to say that it isn't worth discussing, only to counter the comment about being rarely acknowledged.

Not to mention that government finances are nothing like private finances. Governments are assumed to be infinitely lived and their debt can always be paid by new debt. Debt isn’t the same thing for a government that it is for a private entity. For instance, only the government creates money. A Tbill is literally the government taking currency today and agreeing to give it out with interest over time. It was going to need to do that all along.

I say NASA’s budget could be much greater. And employment for all could be guaranteed. Political movements to the otherwise are bad for society. They actively hurt society and guard against betterment. We’re talking dark ages vs progress.

Is that right? I hadn't seen much discussion of that.

It would be very easy to figure out via few simple searches. For example: "About 164,000,000 results" in Google for popular search "is space race worth it?" And 41 million of search results for "space race economic impact", and so on. This question has been discussed almost on every single forum I've been registered in my life, including multiple times on HN.

During the 60's more people opposed the Apollo program spending than supported it, specifically for the reasons you allude to, spend that money on social programs, etc... De-funding these types of programs has been a major talking point of almost every election since then. The discussion has even been renewed quite a bit since SpaceX has came into existence.


This would come over to me more if it was not for the fact I also hear these same people complain about SpaceX send tourists to the moon and maybe landing a probe.

More often the complaint is "I hate that you are spending money on space rather on the things I am interested in".

I have no objection at all to spending one's own money or money given with consent. Of course, some of the money SpaceX spends isn't given with consent (like NASA).

It sounds like you just don't like taxes? I'm not sure what this has to do specifically with space? Nobody personally signs off on everything their tax dollars are spent on.

Nor can they. The cost of that would exceed the potential benefits.

Unless of course there was a website you could log into and pick the top-10 things you want your tax dollars spent on. And an accompanying Law directing that x-percent (>60) of your (unmanipulated) choices be apportioned accordingly to the programs you choose.

The cost of that would be relatively close to nil (except for those who'd rather you see you with no choice at all).

There is a lot more to it than just making choices avaliable.

Let's say you are right.

I do not want taxes turned into a market. Doing that is a patch for not doing civics better in the first place.

When more of us get involved, the funding scenario inproves right a long with a lot of overdue things.

I am completely willing to revisit this idea when we are doing more of the basics right.

Which is why it's important to make your opinion heard regarding how it's spent.

In a simply literal sense this may be true, but it's also misleading.

(What is true is that the only people to have seen the far side of the moon directly are white male Americans, but New Horizons is not a manned mission)

Does this guy know how to party or what?

Hard to see, I know, but there actually are people who can't afford to party.

There need to be more black engineers at NASA. There have been great successes, but there is room for improvement.

"Two NASA employees received awards at Saturday’s (Feb. 11, 2017) annual Black Engineer of the Year Award gala in Washington."


The movie "Hidden Figures" showed some of the problems NASA culture had with integration, this Air and Space article shows more of that struggle.

"How NASA Joined the Civil Rights Revolution Integration came to the nation’s space agency in the mid-1960s"


new horizons is exiting the solar system without a golden record or a golden plaque.

seems like a waste of a very unique opportunity.

For the next 20-30k years, the Sun will be the closest star to this spacecraft. Any alien civilization capable of interstellar travel would probably be intelligent enough to reckon that the probe, if chanced upon within that timeframe, would originate from Sun and might pop over for a look. Beyond that timeframe, I'm not so sure a record would be in playable condition. Furthermore, if interstellar travel were actually possible, one would rather hope that humanity would have developed it by that point.

All-in-all, it seems unlikely that a golden record would be all that useful.

i'd think there would be very little erosion in interstellar space, even over billions of years.

"Perhaps the records will never be intercepted. Perhaps no one in five billion years will ever come upon them.

Five billion years is a long time. In five billion years, all human beings will have become extinct or evolved into other beings, none of our artifacts will have survived on Earth, the continents will have become unrecognizably altered or destroyed, and the evolution of the Sun will have burned the Earth to a crisp or reduced it to a whirl of atoms.

Far from home, untouched by these remote events, the Voyagers, bearing the memories of a world that is no more, will fly on."

- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

We shouldn't be exporting our gold outside the solar system. We need balanced trade with the rest of the galaxy!

I'm not convinced such artifacts add anything of significant probable value over what's already implied by a sophisticated space probe of obviously unnatural origin, should it be discovered intact by aliens.

the biology, origin and culture of who built it might be interesting.

So a priority should be to maximize how interesting our interstellar mission artifacts are to unlikely alien discoverers?

The probe itself is interesting enough, and there are many reasons to be reserved about how much self-describing information we voluntarily share with completely unknown aliens.

I personally find comfort in knowing there's nearly zero possibility of anything intelligent finding voyager intact.

All systems green!

That’s good! It could been obliterated, and probably should have.

Maybe this is the first visit to the future home of humanity, the Kuiper Belt. Vast lebensraum and resources for colonization. Not so much solar power, but we could fuse our own. When energy is cheap the next bottlenecks are surface area and mass. It seems like success would drive our descendants to mostly live in the belt. How disappointing if those images come back tomorrow and show that it's already occupied.

Finding out that it’s already occupied would be the most astounding scientific discovery in history, so I’m going to have to disagree with you on that.

The most astounding scientific discovery in history ... of competitors for resources.

> Vast lebensraum and resources for colonization

Well 'vast', yes, but not much else. Mainly rock and ices.

Which are more valuable than metals.

Certainly the ices. No need to go so far out for that though. Bennu likely has a fair bit of water as hydrates and there is a fair bit of water ice in Saturn's rings.

Don't be inner-solar-system-centric :) Once the frontier has been pushed back to the outer solar system, volatile KBO and Oort Cloud objects become the new frontier. We can imagine a distant future where humanity planet-hops from object to object, transforming these volatile rocks into vibrant cities each with their own culture.

Don't mean to be an inner-solar-system-centric, but we all have to respect the economics of deltaVee. I'll grant you that if we're harvesting reaction mass from the Oort, it may become moot, provided we have some way to accelerate it to high velocity. Solar thermal probably isn't practical, there probably aren't practical concentrations of fuel for fusion and certainly not fission. I wonder if Mercury has relatively easily mined fissile material?

What delta-V? I'm not suggesting it go anywhere too distant. In a few thousand years there will be trillions of sentient beings living in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, trading with each other and building lasting, self-sufficient civilizations.

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