I guess it was always going to be a mystery as to precisely what lay out there in the Kuiper belt in the outer reaches of the solar system, at least until we got there.
And what do we find? A snowman. Of course.
Joking aside, the New Year fly-by of Ultima Thule by the New Horizons probe was a landmark in the history of space exploration – not least because it’s the furthest body ever encountered by a spacecraft. It’s also the first time data has been collected from close up about one of the smaller objects out there, an object that is likely to have been orbiting the Sun largely unchanged since the solar system was formed. And it is, as we shall see, a unique moment in which we have an opportunity to reflect upon ourselves.
This is from the New Horizons website and shows Ultima Thule, with the ‘Thule’ lobe lower left, taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at 4:23 and 5:01 UT on January 1, 2019 at 61,000 kilometres and 28,000 kilometers. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
It’s going to take a couple of years for the data to trickle back – power and transmission rates being what they are and so on. But that makes it all the more interesting. Each new tantalising fragment will open up another aspect of discovery and – likely – pose as many questions as it answers.
I believe the New Horizons mission isn’t over, either. The spacecraft still has 11kg of fuel remaining, which is enough for minor course corrections, maybe enough to tweak its orbit towards some other body out there, one as yet unknown. Remember, Ultima Thule wasn’t discovered until well after New Horizons was on its way to Pluto. And after that, if support funding is available, the probe will hurtle relentlessly on towards the edge of the solar system, perhaps revealing yet more about the nature and conditions of this little-known region.
For me, the science is only part of this story. The wider story is one of curiosity, of human inquisitiveness. We spend so much of our time and effort fighting each other – variously with words, ideas, or actual weapons. Things seem to be building to what in wider historical terms presents as a general crisis of society and culture. They happen every few generations, and I think the next year or two, 2019-20, will be crucial on many levels, certainly for the west. The idea that we might discover something purely for the sake of it, because it is interesting, because it adds to the sum of human knowledge, because it is just cool to know, seems to have fallen by the wayside.
Yet to me, such a goal is laudable. It is important. Why? Because it offers a way of drawing people together to a goal that is not geared towards profit for an entitled and arrogant few, not geared towards dispossessing others or asserting power. It has nothing to do with selfishness, bullying and all the other behaviours that dog western life as the late twentieth century western ideological cycle reaches its second generation. It is a goal that is purely for itself, and which piques the human sense of wondering about what might lie over the next hill.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019