The amazing story of New Horizons

The New Horizons spacecraft is hurtling through deep space toward its New Year’s Day encounter with the Kuiper Belt object “Ultima Thule,” a nickname which is better than the object’s official moniker of 2014 MU69. New Horizons collected amazing photos and data during a 2015 fly-by of Pluto, and I’ve just finished reading the account of that mission, Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto (Picador, 2018). Penned by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon, Chasing New Horizons is a fabulous read that tells the tale of the nearly 25 years it took to get the mission from a back-of-the-napkin concept to a real spacecraft that delivered those amazing images of the former ninth planet.

Stern and Grinspoon visited Seattle in May in support of the book. Grinspoon called the tale of New Horizons an unlikely story.

“The effort to send a mission to Pluto,” he said, “was one that had so many twists and turns, seeming dead ends, and inescapable traps that it’s still amazing to me that it happened.”

“I think there’s a lot of genuine suspense and drama, and yet, you know how it ends!” Grinspoon added. “It really is an adventure story as well as a nerd-fest of solving technical problems and ultimately succeeding spectacularly in this amazing exploration.”

The story truly is incredible. The New Horizons team that at its biggest included 2,500 people had to battle from the beginning. The first fight was simply getting approval just to do some preliminary work on a project as audacious as sending a mission to Pluto. They had to compete over whose proposed project would be selected, to get funding, to decide what science would happen, to actually build, launch, and fly the craft, to get it to the right place at the right time, and to deliver the science that was promised. Stern said they euphemistically referred to their challenges with the resident reptiles around the Kennedy Space Center in mind.

“There were so many alligators in the water at one point that we had no idea how we could solve all of the problems that we were having,” Stern said.

Yet—spoiler alert!—they did, and they accomplished it for a fraction of the cost of the Voyager mission, for example, and in a time frame that, by NASA standards, was break-neck.

Grinspoon and Stern

Grinspoon (left) and Stern spoke about Chasing New Horizons at a Town Hall Seattle event at the Museum of Flight on May 17, 2018. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Grinspoon interviewed Stern and more than two dozen others for the book, so it is really something of an oral history of New Horizons team members’ recollections of what happened along the amazing journey.

All of the jockeying makes for interesting storytelling, but the near loss of the mission just days before it’s Pluto fly-by, and how that was solved, is an incredible tale. Many of the team were taking a quick breather before the fly-by and trying to enjoy the Independence Day holiday when contact with New Horizons was lost. The work the team did to figure out what happened, to fix the problem, and to make sure the craft’s computers were ready for the complicated maneuvers ahead, is simply remarkable. Imagine doing that work around-the-clock with the whole mission hanging in the balance. For Stern, there was the real possibility that 25 years of work could go down the drain. That’s a whole lot of egg aimed right at your face. Cool heads, smart engineers, preparation, and a little luck prevailed. The science we got out of it is amazing.

“Pluto is an exotic, sci-fi world,” Stern said. “This book is a page-turner; it is a techno-thriller.”

You don’t necessarily want the author writing his own dust-jacket blurbs, but in this case we agree! Chasing New Horizons is highly recommended.

Last month New Horizons, about 100 million miles away from Ultima Thule, was able to spot its next destination with its own cameras, something the team announced on Twitter.

If you read Chasing New Horizons you’ll have an idea of what the team has ahead between now and its fly-by on January 1.

Further reading:

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