It was 30 minutes after midnight on January 1, 2019. We just ran into New Year, but we were about to do another countdown – which we were all waiting for.
I was packed in tight masses of engineers, scientists, and general site enthusiasts. Many are sporting cocktail dresses and suits for the occasion, while others are worn shirts and jackets made with NASA's logo. Up on stage at the front of the room was Alan Stehr. He is surrounded by dozens of little kids, many of whom also wear NASA-branded clothing. One little girl is even dressed in an orange spot suit.
The clock reads 12:32 on ET. In just one minute, a spacecraft named New Horizons would pass through a New York City-sized rock, located about 4.1 billion miles away from Times Square, the solar system's outer reaches.
"At this very moment, when we talk and celebrate this event, New Horizons is taking its risky observation," Stern said in a microphone, hyping up the crowd. The room was buzzing with excitement, and groups of people periodically burst into cheers. Many waved tiny American flags in the air.
Soon, the countdown began. "Five … four … three … two … one! Go, New Horizons!" The sounds of fake fireworks filled the room, and the kids were confident in the air. Those in the crowd cheered and smiled. Hugs and handcuffs abounded. It was midnight all over again – except for this time, there is even more electricity.
As exciting as it was, it's quite before. None of us actually Knew If spacecraft has passed through the stone or not. There is no real-life television camera cruising into the outer solar system's streaming antics of robotic space explorers. And even if it were, all of this would be a massive delay. So far, new horizons are out in the solar system right now, taking six hours for one radio signal to reach us on Earth. That means we can never know what New Horizons is doing in real time.
So we all just celebrated something Hoped Just happened.
But the team that operates new horizons – many are in the room with me – preparing for the moment for years, and they wanted a party to sign the occasion. These spacecraft commands are carefully crafted and long-lasting for the vehicle. All of the spacecraft had to do as it was told.
Fortunately, New Horizons has been all over. Three and a half years earlier, the spacecraft zoomed out of the Dwarf Planet Pluto, snapping the first close-up pictures of the tiny world. That event was a great success that captured the attention of the people. But once Flibi ended, New Horizons kept on zooming through the solar system in order to come up with another stone – an object designated in 2014 by Mu 69.
This object is something of a mystery. We didn't even know that it was up to four years ago. Scientists are able to place it in 2014 using NASA's Bubble Space Telescope, which is in orbit around Earth. But tracking it is a challenge. About 100 times smaller than Pluto, MU69 is tiny and far-fetched, making it super hard to see. Up until the flibi, the only pictures we have of this object are small specimens of light or blobs that are just a few pixels across. No one on the team really knew what to expect.
But New Horizons was about to get an up-close view, revealing for the first time what this type of object looks like. Located in an area of the solar system known as the Copper Belt, this bizarre stone is unlike anything we've ever learned before. It is so small and so far from the sun that it has remained relatively unchanged since the beginning of the solar system. Scientists think that in the early days of our solar system, many small objects like MU69 finally came together to form planets and moons.
MU69 was perfectly positioned so that the new horizons could weigh past the object on its journey beyond Pluto. Automated since the whole of the flibi process, fans, team members and reporters can gather in Laurel, Maryland, for the historic occasion. It is a mission operations center, at the Applied Physics Laboratory of John Hopkins University, where the team can monitor incoming and outgoing spacecraft signals. Since the fliby happened in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2019, the crew was also thought to be ready to party in style.
In the end of the night's theme, a huge hallway was outfitted with twinkle lights and balloons. New Year's Eve party hats are available for guests, along with streamers. People can take their picture in front of the New Horizons mission logo. There are huge white posters that guests could sign to give their best wishes to the spacecraft.
This party is also packed, too. Johns Hopkins allowed media and missionary members to bring guests with them. It was New Year's Eve, after all – a time to spend with loved ones. Toddlers are sprouting through the site, and children are training their parents, some of whom are more interested in their smartphones than the festivities. I dragged my fifty and took him pictures for this article.
Leading up to midnight, scientists with New Horizon's hosted panels describe the science they hope to achieve with spacecraft and how we study the outer solar system. All the while, the room grew more crowded than became more animated and chatty. There are also some VIPs in attendance – notably, Queen Guitarist May, who is also an acclaimed astrologist. He said he planned to debut a song after midnight, dedicated to the new mission lines. "My song, my track, became my anthem about the human spirit, the experience of revealing the universe," we may say earlier in the day.
I made it a point to talk to some of the New Horizons team members, who I interviewed earlier. I asked one, Alex Parker, how he felt now that we were finally going to see this thing. He was instrumental in finding first place 69, and I can't imagine what it should be like to finally see something close to helping you discover. "At this point, it still doesn't feel real," Parker said. "There was something I've been working for for a better part of a decade now." He added: "I'm not totally braced."
Soon, midnight arrived. Plastic cups with champagne were dolled out to guests. After celebrating the New Year, everyone tried to push their way to the pumped-up crowd. The hall is instantly filled with electric guitar reefs, beating drums, and May's voice bellowing lyrics like "New Horizons to explore." A ceiling projector showed an animated music video, complete with spacecraft images by space. It was impossible not to catch the scene. A spacecraft, rocking and rolling.
Once the Flibi countdown ended, the night's magic faded quickly and we escaped as fast as we could – sleep is now my highest priority. We should be back in the hall just a few hours to confirm that this spacecraft really survived. After the plague, New Horizons is about to send a signal back to Earth to let the team know it was good health. That signal is scheduled to arrive at 10:30 am and on January 1, we will speed up our hotel, and as soon as I hit the pillow I fell asleep.
What seemed like a second later, we're back in John's Hopkins. The same load is there, drained substantially more. I tried quite a few Yavns and watched as they gathered around the free coffee dispensers.
We all filed in a nearby hall and took our seats. From there, we watched a giant screen, displaying people watching … screens. The missions center was a life-watch, where the missionary monitors monitored the data of new horizons as it came in. Compared to the excitement of yesterday, the hall is like a tomb. People talked in towed tones, but most remained silent. Everyone was eager to know what the data showed. The room was just like the Unspoken Stress weighed down by everyone. Suddenly my stomach is stinked.
But Alice Bowman, the missions manager for new horizons, started smiling at the screen, and the salt broke into nervous laughter. Is good news coming? Soon, she began to list the status of each of New Horizons & # 39; subsystems.
"Thermal is reporting green status," she said, as the hall broke into wild applause. She said that for each of these systems, including vehicle engine, power, computer storage, and more. Once she went through the checklist, she got up and explained to the room:
"We have a sound spacecraft," she said. "We've just reached the most distant Flibby."
The hall load had erupted. There was no countdown for this celebration, and the room was filled with half-asleep men, but the cheers and applause overwhelmed the night before.
It remains a lot to learn about MU69. Getting all the juicy details of the Flibi will require a lot of waiting. New Horizons receives a Long Time to send back their data, so we did not even get the first close up image until the day after the Flibi. (And now we know that this object looks like a snowman.) Actually, it will take 20 minutes for all the information to come down to earth. That means it's still lots of left to do, but at least we know our earlier celebration is not in vain.