New Horizons at the farthest frontiers

New Horizons at the farthest frontiers

As 2019 dawned on us, seven billion kilometres away in the skies, a lone ranger’s arduous journey – just shy of 12 years – was rewarded with a magnificent sight. Unlike anything ever achieved before, a tiny target was pursued and rendezvoused; there came into the field of view a spectacular vision of two fused, icy, primordial masses, each a few miles in length. We were now on the threshold of new frontiers in the abyss of space.

The historic moment was a homecoming for the adventurer: Nasa’s robotic spacecraft New Horizons. In a remarkable achievement, the space traveller first reached the dwarf planet Pluto, the most massive resident of the Kuiper region.

The Kuiper Belt is a frozen world that lies beyond the eighth planet, Neptune. This outer fringe of the solar system contains millions of cold frozen masses called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO), traversing the space in eccentric orbits. Pluto is the largest of such KBOs. This pristine outer belt holds vital information about our origins.

New Horizons outlived its expected life of 10 years, surviving the harsh and unknown environs of deep space. It travelled a billion miles beyond Pluto, in pursuit of another KBO to reach the fused rocky masses of Ultima and Thule, on January 1, 2019.

The sojourns of the traveller garner a thrill no less than the adventures of the Starship Enterprise from the Star Trek franchise. If New Horizons could narrate its tale, some entries in its mission log would perhaps read thus:

Seeking new worlds

January 19, 2006. I am perched on the nose of the Atlas V 551 rocket at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, ready to lift off on a daring mission. There are nail-biting moments, as my makers from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory scurry about with last-minute checks.

I am to go beyond the mighty Jupiter, the cold Neptune and reach the frigid Pluto; the mission will take me where no man has gone before, to seek new frontiers.

My explorations will reveal what lies at the edge of our solar system. This icy world holds the secrets of how planets formed 4.5 billion years ago. “Working like a time machine,” is how I am described, as I will be gathering information about the processes that happened at the birth of the solar system.

Miles to go

A straight path is never an option in space travel; often, millions of extra miles and space routines are called for to optimise fuel consumption. I am in a hurry to reach my target, as Pluto would soon go into its decades of ‘night’.

I choose the fastest route – via Jupiter. I will use the giant planet’s gravity and hurl myself toward Pluto; after that, I am to travel at high speeds and cover a million miles a day. This manoeuvre will save me three years of travel time.

By April 2006, I glimpse Mars; by February 2007, I am at Jupiter for the slingshot.

Soon, I cross the orbits of Saturn (2008), Uranus (2011) and Neptune (2014). Throughout these eight years, I am officially hibernating (to save my energy), with brief wake intervals for instrument checks, calibrations and trajectory corrections.

Wake up time!

Christmas time, 2014. I am fully awake from my deep slumber to conduct intense routines and rehearse the upcoming Pluto encounter.

Approaching tiny Pluto and its biggest moon, Charon, the flyby is a close one, at a mere 12,500 kilometres.

I take pride in my panel of advanced instruments: LORRI, Alice and Ralph who can map the dwarf planet and its moons even in the dim light; PEPPSI, SWAP and Rex will conduct the particle and atmospheric studies; Student Dust Counter, a gift from undergraduate students is keeping count of the dust particles that I encounter all through the voyage.

Raising the bar

When I set out, Pluto was stripped of its planet status and classified as a dwarf planet, and the largest among the KBOs, also called the TransNeptunian objects. However, millions more of KBOs were predicted to exist in the doughnut-shaped frozen ring.

It was only in 2014, with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, that my earth team discovered 2014MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, another stable, tiny, frozen volatile in this region. My extra load of hydrazine fuel encourages me to go beyond in quest of this. By 2016, I am hunting the target relentlessly, and pleased by my exceptional performance, Nasa extends my mission until 2020.

Between 2017 and 2020, I will be heading a billion miles beyond, in pursuit of the KBO.

Ultima Thule greets me on the horizon on New Year’s Day, 2019. Despite my high speeds, I can track down the tiny object and engage with it: a remarkable achievement! Losing no time, I frame the pictures for posterity. My communication skills are brilliant, even from such far-off distances. I have just raised the bar for hi-tech deep space navigation and transmission!

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