Tag Archives: New Horizons

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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Let’s get Pluto and New Horizons on a postage stamp

Stamps

Postage doubled between the time of Project Mercury and the Moon landing. And airmail was all the way up to a dime. Stamps from the Greg Scheiderer collection.

I find it fascinating how often my interest in space and astronomy sends me off on a mental trip to another place and time. Beyond the notion that my eyeball often captures photons that left their point of origin before the dawn of human civilization, I sometimes find that the hobby moves me around even within my own lifetime.

It happened again today. I learned during my morning reading about the newly launched effort to get the U.S. Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp depicting the New Horizons mission to Pluto. This leads me to a confession: I’m a former philatelist.

This is a deep, dark secret that not even my wife knew about. I hadn’t had the stamp album out of the box in probably 40 years. Yet the thing kept following me through nine moves, and probably even more efforts to jettison junk. Somehow, this morning, I found the box, opened it up, and went in search of some of those space stamps I remember so well. As the collected works spread out to take up most of the dining room table, my wife walked in and, with a puzzled look, asked “What’s all that stuff.” Well, its the stamp collection, of course. (It had been in that box she kept asking me to move to another spot after the latest move, back into the house after last year’s remodeling project.)

More stamps

Many nations issued stamps commemorating space heroes. Here is a stamp from Mongolia depicting Yuri Gagarin, a Qatar stamp of Neil Armstrong, one from Romania with Wally Schirra, and a Hungarian stamp of John Glenn. From the Greg Scheiderer collection.

Among the valued items in my stamp box are my stamp collecting merit badge pamphlet and my handwritten notes, on 3×5 cards, for the presentation I made to earn the badge. In the notes I listed three reasons for stamp collecting: money, fun, and learning about other countries. At least one of those is true; stamp collecting is the only reason I know where Qatar is. The Middle-Eastern country issued some gorgeous stamps in the day. Though, now that I think about it, I’m having fun with it today, too! As for the money part, I don’t expect that the stamps a 12-year-old could buy in 1969 for 50 cents per bag amount to much cash value, but if you’re an appraiser who found this post by Googling “million-dollar space stamps” please let me know. (I’ll find a way to monitize this blog yet!)

I wonder if my interest in space had something to do with my interest in stamp collecting. As a kid growing up in the 1960s I was fascinated by the space race, and the stamps of many countries depicted the achievements of space adventures. This wasn’t limited to the United States and the Soviet Union. Many countries issued space commemoratives. Soviet-bloc nations were big on what the Russians were doing, but even tiny places like Dominica, Togo, and Rwanda issued space stamps. Space exploration and the Moon landing captured the imagination of the entire world, not just little space dreamers like me. Somehow my stamp collection languished for four decades. But today I’m glad I have it.

Proposed Pluto stamp

Concept art by Dan Durda for a postage stamp commemorating the New Horizons mission to Pluto. The New Horizons team is pushing for the stamp through an online petition to the U.S. Postal Service.

I’m a big fan of Pluto and think the stamp idea is a worthy one. If we’re going to stick with busting Pluto down to dwarf status, the least we can do is to remind snail-mail users and stamp collectors that the first space mission out that way is due to arrive in July 2015. Organizers say we’ve got to start now in order to have the stamp ready for sticking in three years. It can take that long to navigate the red tape!

So go here and sign the online petition to request a Pluto and New Horizons stamp. The aim is to collect 100,000 signatures to send to the USPS, and they’ve got 4,300 of them as of this writing. That’s not much progress, but the effort is just under way, and getting a boost from the likes of the Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society, Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log, Space.com, Sky & Telescope, and a host of others. Boyle is a big Pluto fan and is the author of The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference, one of three books about the ex-planet about which I wrote last year.

Let’s show our love for space nuts, stamp collectors, and dwarf planets. Power to Pluto!

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