While you ring in the new year on Monday night, you can also watch along as NASA sends a spacecraft zooming by a tiny rock 4.1 billion miles from Earth. The space agency’s New Horizons probe, which flew by Pluto in 2015, is now going to fly past another object — a type of space rock we’ve never been to before. And it’s all happening just as we enter the year 2019.
Just like with the Pluto flyby, the New Horizons mission team is gathered at John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where they will monitor the spacecraft from the facility’s mission operations center. Live streams will show what the team is up to before and during the flyby, and mission scientists will be hosting press conferences to provide updates about what New Horizons is up to.
Since the US is currently in the middle of a partial government shutdown, there was some confusion over how the public could keep tabs on this record-breaking event. NASA is one of the federal agencies affected by the shutdown, so its “nonessential employees” have been furloughed. Those include NASA’s public affairs team. For a while, people feared that NASA would not be able to air footage of the events on its dedicated channel, NASA TV, or update its social media accounts.
“It’s ironic: NASA is doing the farthest exploration in its history and they got their hands tied behind their back by being caught in the government shutdown,” Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, tells The Verge. “We have malfunction procedures for almost everything, but we didn’t think of a malfunction procedure for the government shutting down during the flyby.”
However, in a last minute win, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced on Twitter that the events will be shown on NASA TV, and that the space agency would update the public on the mission with its social media accounts. If all goes to plan, NASA TV’s live stream should come online for both the flyby and the accompanying press conferences. Meanwhile, John Hopkins is not affected by the shutdown, and it plans to show the events live on its YouTube page, as well. The University also lists a number of links to follow on its website.
As for the timeline of the flyby, things get started on December 31st, with a press briefing at 2PM ET. Then around the time of the flyby at 12:33AM ET on January 1st, there will be some celebrations in the missions operations center to honor the event. But at that time, we won’t know for sure if all went well. Radio communication from the spacecraft takes about six hours to reach Earth, and New Horizons won’t send a signal back to Earth until a few hours after it whizzes past the rock, called Ultima Thule. So sometime between 9:45 and 10:45AM ET, the mission team should receive that signal confirming a success.
A little after that confirmation, the New Horizons team will host a press conference and show off some images taken by the spacecraft before the flyby. Those pictures will still be a tad fuzzy, due to the vehicle’s distance from the object. But after the flyby signal is received, New Horizons will started sending back its data to Earth, so we should receive the first high-resolution images of the space rock on January 2nd.
When New Horizons performs its flyby, it will be as far away from the object as New York is from LA. From that distance, Ultima Thule will appear as big as the full Moon does in the sky here on Earth. But New Horizons has a few high-precision telescopes on board, so we should get some detailed up-close images, akin to pictures of the Moon taken by powerful telescopes on the ground. “It’s tricky imagery, made really fast in a critical time window,” says Stern. “If that works, we’ll have images that are more detailed than Pluto by quite a bit.”
It will take quite some time to gather all of the fruits of the flyby. New Horizons will spend up to 20 months downlinking all of the data it gathers on New Year’s Day. So expect to get some amazing images in the first week — and then for many months afterward.