Just after midnight on New Year’s Day, NASA scientists got an extra reason to pop the champagne — and it came shaped like a champagne bottle or, depending on your perspective, a bowling pin or a snowman. However you look at it, the cause for celebration is an object 22 miles long, 9 miles across and some 4 billion miles from the sun. When NASA’s New Horizons craft buzzed by it on Jan. 1, Ultima Thule became the most distant object ever visited by a human probe. New Horizons, meanwhile, became the second record-breaking spacecraft in as many months powered by GE technology.
Ultima Thule — the name means “beyond the borders of the known world” in Latin — resides in the Kuiper Belt, a region past Neptune that rings the planets of the solar system. The Kuiper Belt might contain hundreds of thousands of icy objects larger than 62 miles (100 kilometers) as well as “an estimated trillion or more comets,” according to NASA. The icy crumbs are leftovers from the creation of the solar system. The planets, including Earth, coalesced from a disc of matter surrounding the newborn Sun some 4.6 billion years ago. “Congratulations to NASA’s New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “This is what leadership in space exploration is all about.”
The team working on the project included astrophysicist Brian May, whose other professional gig includes playing the lead guitar in the band Queen. May, who wrote the stadium anthem We Will Rock You as well as other Queen hits, also composed a tune a for the mission titled New Horizons.
The list of contributors to the mission also includes GE. Like the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, the first human-made objects to leave the solar system, New Horizons draws power from a piece of GE technology called the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). The spacecraft uses electricity from the RTG to snap and transmit photographs and other mission data.
The RTG takes advantage of the predictable decay of the plutonium-238 radioisotope inside 18 fire-resistant ceramic pellets, transforming the heat given off by the plutonium into electricity via a process known as the Seebeck effect. The RTG aboard New Horizons provided about 250 watts of power when the probe launched in 2006. But the generator loses 5 percent of its power every four years.
New Horizons observed Ultima Thule from a distance of 2,200 miles. It will take the spacecraft 20 months to transmit all of the information back to Earth. The probe will be poking around the Kuiper Belt “until at least 2021,” NASA said, hunting for clues illuminating the birth of the solar system.