Saturday , July 31 2021

Counting the new year and the farthest spill over into the solar system

It was 30 minutes after midnight on January 1, 2019. We only had a ring in the New Year, but we had to make another one-the one we all were waiting for.

I was packed in tight among a vast array of engineers, scientists and general enthusiasts. Many were sporting cocktail dresses and suits for this occasion, while others wore shirts and jackets decorated with the NASA logo. The stage on the front of the room was Alan Stern. He was surrounded by dozens of young children, many of whom also wore clothing with the NASA brand. A little girl was dressed in an orange suit.

The clock is read 12:32 ET. In just one minute, a spacecraft called New Horizons would have passed a rock-like New York, which was about 4.1 billion miles away from the Times Square celebration in the outer parts of the Solar System.

"At this moment, as we speak and celebrate this event, New horizons take their most risky observation," said Stern in a microphone, splitting the crowd. The room was buzzing with excitement, and groups of people periodically burst into shouts. Many waving little American flags in the air.

Soon, the countdown started. "Five … four … three … two … one! Go, new horizons!" The sounds of fake fireworks filled the room, while the children threw confetti in the air on the stage. Those in the crowd cheered and smiled. Embrace and shuffles abound. It was midnight again – except this time, there was even more power.

As exciting as the moment was, it was completely premature. None of us actually he knew if the spacecraft went through this rock or not. In reality, reality reality TV crews in the outer solar system can not track the footage of robotic space explorers. And even if there is, all of this content will take place with a big delay. The new horizons are so far in the Solar System right now, when for a radio signal we need to reach us on Earth for six hours. That means we can never know what New Horizons do in real time.

So, we all just celebrated something that we he hoped just happened.

But the team working with the Horizons – many were in the room with me – have been preparing for this moment for years, and wanted a party to mark this occasion. The crews of the spacecraft were carefully crafted and long ago turned into the vehicle. All spacecraft that they were supposed to do was to perform as they were told.

Fortunately, New Horizon is through all of this before. Three and a half years earlier, the spacecraft zoomed in from the dwarf planet Pluto, smashing the first large images of the small world. This event was a great success that drew the attention of the nation. But as soon as the flight took off, New horizons continued to zoom in through the Solar System to meet another rock – a facility designated for the 2014 MU69.

This object is something mysterious. We do not even know that it existed four years ago. Scientists managed to spot it in 2014 with the help of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which is in orbit around the Earth. But monitoring is a challenge. About 100 times smaller than Pluto, the MU69 is small and far, making it super hard to see. Until the flying, the only images we had on the object were little specs of light or blobs that were only a few pixels across. No one in the team really knew what to expect.

But New Horizons were to be seen in the vicinity, revealing for the first time what this kind of object looks like. This strange rock is located in the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt, and unlike anything we've ever studied nearby. It is so small and so distant from the Sun that it remains relatively unchanged from the beginning of the Solar System. Scientists believe that in the early days of our solar system, many small objects like the MU69 were gathered together to form planets and moons.

The MU69 was perfectly positioned so that New Horizons could deceive the object of their trip outside of Pluto. Since the whole process of flight was automated, it meant that fans, team members, and journalists could come together in Laurel, Maryland, for the historic occasion. There is a mission center for operations at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, where the team can monitor inbound and outbound signals. Since flying took place in the early hours of the New Year, 2019 also meant that the crew was ready for a fun in style.

In accordance with the night theme, a huge hall was equipped with flashing lights and balloons. New Year's hats on New Year's holidays were available for guests, along with experts. People could photograph it in front of the screens with the logo of the Nova Horizons mission. There were huge white posters that guests could sign to give their best wishes to the spacecraft.

This party was extra packed, too. John Hopkins allowed media and mission scientists to gather guests. He was already a New Year's man, a time to spend with his loved ones. The children went through the space, while the children were lagging behind the parents, some of whom were more interested in their smartphones from the festivities. I entered along with my fiancé and gave him the task of photographing this article.

Leading until midnight, scientists with New Horizons were panel hosts, describing the science they hoped to achieve with the spacecraft and how we would study the outer solar system. All the time, the room became more crowded as people became more animated and calm. There were also several VIPs, especially the guitarist Queen Brian May, who is also a famous astrophysicist. The word was that he plans to debut a song after midnight, dedicated to the New Horizons mission. "My song, my path, my anthem became for the human spirit, trying to discover the universe," May said earlier in the day.

I made a point to talk to some of the members of the New Horizons team that I had previously interviewed. I asked one, Alex Parker, how he felt now that we would finally see this work. He was an instrument for finding the MU69 in the first place, and I could not imagine what it must feel like to see something close up that helped you discover. "At this point, it still does not feel completely real," Parker said. "It's something I've worked for a better part of a decade." He added: "I am not fully prepared for this."

Soon, midnight arrived. Plastic glasses with champagne were glued to guests. After celebrating the New Year, everyone tried to silence, since May presented his song to the pumped crowd. The hall was immediately filled with electric guitar riffs, drunken drums, and May's voice with songs like "New horizons to explore / No one has ever seen new horizons". The projector near the ceiling displayed an animated music video, complete with images of the spacecraft moving through the universe. It was impossible not to giggle on the stage. Craft, cradle and rolling.

Once the countdown ended with flying, the magic of the night quickly disappeared, and we escaped the fastest we could – sleep was now my highest priority. We had to go back to the auditorium in just a few hours to confirm that this spacecraft really survived. After the passage, Horizons will send a signal to Earth to allow the team to know that it is in good condition. That signal was to arrive at 10:30 am on January 1st. We hurried to our hotel, and I fell asleep as soon as I hit the pillow.

What seemed like a second later, we were back at Johns Hopkins. The same crowd was there, drastically subdued. I caught a few beings and watched people gather around free coffee grinders.

We all submitted to a nearby auditorium and took our seats. From there, we watched a huge screen, showing people watching … screens. It was a glimpse at the mission operations center, where mission managers followed New Horizons data as they came. Compared to yesterday's excitement, the auditorium felt like a grave. People spoke with shaded tones, but most remained silent. Everyone was eager to know what the data reveals. The room felt dense, while unspoken pressure was based on everyone. My stomach suddenly descended.

But then, Alice Bowman, a mission manager for new horizons, began to smile on the screen, and the auditorium laughed in nervous laughter. Did Good News Come? Quickly, she began to list the status of each of the new horizons subsystems.

"The heat reports the green status," she said, as the auditorium turned into a wild applause. She did this for each of the systems, including the drive motor, power, storage of computers and more. After entering the checklist, she became ads in the room:

"We have a healthy spacecraft," she said. "We have just made our furthest flight."

The audience in the auditorium broke out. There was no countdown for this celebration, and the room was full of half-dying people, but joy and applause overcame the anxiety from the night before.

Much remains to be learned about the MU69. Getting all the juicy details of the flight will require a lot of waiting. The new Horizons are taking long time to send our data, or even get the first picture close to the day after the flight. (And now we know that this object looks like a lump of a snowman.) In fact, it will take 20 months for all that information to come down to Earth. That means there is still a lot of counting on the left, but at least we know that our early celebration was not in vain.

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