As New Year’s messages go, the one from New Horizons has been remarkable.
It began a scant 33 minutes after the ball dropped in Times Square, when the small NASA spacecraft encountered the farthest celestial body scientists have ever viewed up close. The icy object it photographed is nicknamed Ultima Thule, which means “beyond the borders of the known world.” How appropriate.
Now the photos have begun to arrive on Earth. Like the beginning of a new year, they brim with possibility. They prove that there are no bounds on human achievement. And they speak about the importance of science — the information New Horizons will send back could lead to discoveries about the origin of our solar system.
The spacecraft is a metaphor for our times. In pushing past boundaries, it’s the opposite of withdrawal and retrenchment. And it celebrates humankind, our endless thirst for knowledge and exploration, and our quest to discover more about ourselves and our universe.
At this point, New Horizons’ numbers are otherwordly. It passed by Ultima Thule at 32,000 mph, and is more than 4 billion miles from Earth. Its transmissions, moving at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), take more than six hours to reach us. It will be 20 months before all of its data from Ultima Thule get to Earth.
The spacecraft launched 13 years ago and its epic flyby of Pluto in 2015 produced a raft of stunning photos and a trove of information. Scientists hope for the same with Ultima Thule. Then, NASA should extend New Horizons’ mission once more, as the agency did after the probe passed Pluto. After all, humanity, embodied in the spacecraft, is literally going boldly where it has never gone before.
New Horizons is doing what we humans do at the start of each new year. It’s looking back — not to the last 12 months, but all the way back to the infancy of the solar system. And it’s also pushing ahead — to a future that really is unknown. It’s wonderfully escapist and utterly real, and we hope the optimism it has created sustains us throughout this year. — The editorial board