Colorado Blasted Off Again—13 Years Ago
You ever have that moment when you’re sure you’re about to die? No, wait, don't click away, I promise I'm going somewhere with this. Let me explain:
Ok, you know when you’re at home alone, relaxing in your basement or living room and it’s getting pretty late—maybe around 10 or 11? —and you decide that it’s time to turn in for the night? (If you’re thinking ‘Yeah, of course, I know that moment, Alex, what kind of fool do you take me for?’ then just hold your horses, I’m getting there).
So, you stand up, close your laptop or your book or what have you, head over to the door and flick off the lights. Which is fine. But as you’re surrounded by this profound, sudden darkness, you get the foreboding feeling that there’s something else in the room.
It’s something you can’t see, but you’re filled with the certainty that it can see you. Even knowing there's only your couch and your coffee table sitting in the gloom, and knowing you’re completely alone, the dread is still powerful, immediate, and inexplicable. Something's out there, and it’s going to get you.
Now, if you’re a reasonable adult, you probably shrug, turn around, and go upstairs. But if you’re like me, you’ll do nothing as measured like that, no. If you’re like me, you'll whip around and sprint up those steps two at a time, running as though the hounds of hell are after you.
You know that feeling, right? No? Just me? Well, all of that was actually a very long lead-up to saying that we can now experience less of that feeling in the universe at large! Because Colorado helped one of the farthest-reaching spacecraft in history take flight, and because of its work, we can now confirm that there’s nothing living in the darkness beyond our planet. Well, at least for four billion miles in the direction of Pluto.
A week ago on Monday, the spacecraft dubbed New Horizons flew by a tiny planet called Ultima Thule, the farthest spatial body we’ve had contact within our solar system. By examining the tiny, 19-mile-across planet, researchers hoped to learn more about the birth of the solar system and the formation of planets. And Ultima Thule delivered, too: It’s actually a ‘contact binary,’ which means there are two bodies that are fused together. Researches believe that this is a snapshot of how some of our planets formed, i.e. by crashing into each other and then becoming one body.
While New Horizons discovery is astronomical (pun intended), its flight to the farthest reaches of the solar system is just as extraordinary.
According to this article by 9 News, this probe’s incredible journey began in 2006, when it blasted out of Earth’s atmosphere to gather data about Pluto, our favorite not-planet. Ultima Thule is just past Pluto (you know, in a spatial, everything-is-far-away manner), so when New Horizons was finished collecting Pluto data, it was in a unique position to go even farther than before.
Not that the relative convenience made the feat any easier—it takes about 12 hours to hear back from the probe every time a command is sent, which makes a big difference when the spacecraft in question is traveling 32,000 miles per hour. Yeah, talk about time being relative.
In spite of the difficulty, more images will continue to arrive of Ultima Thule in the coming weeks and months, teaching us more about our little corner of the galaxy. And it’s all thanks to scientific minds throughout Colorado, including Dr. Alan Stern of Boulder, who’s one of the lead scientists on the project, The University of Colorado and Ball Aerospace, who built some of the instruments New Horizons is carrying, and Lockheed Martin, who built the launch vehicle.
Bless you, space nerds, I appreciate each and every one of you. So, we may be a landlocked state, but no one can saw we’re not… out of this world. You can follow New Horizons' adventures on their Twitter page, just click here.