It was 30 minutes after midnight on January 1, 2019. We just took place in the New Year, but we were about to do another reversal – the one we've been waiting for.
I was packed in a massive crowd of engineers, scientists and space enthusiasts. Many were dresses and cocktail dresses for the occasion, while others wore NASA-colored shirts and jackets. On a scene in front of the room is Alan Stern. He was surrounded by tens of young children, many of whom also wore NASA branded clothing. A little girl was even dressed in an orange suit.
The clock read 12:32 AM ET. In just one minute, a space ship named New Horizons will pass through a New York-sized rock, about 4.1 billion miles away from Times Square's fun in the outer space of the solar system.
"At this moment, as we talk and celebrate this event, New Horizons takes the most risky observation," Stern said in a microphone, stirring the crowd. The room was full of emotion, and groups of people burst into the cheeks. Many have waved American flags in the air.
Soon the countdown started. "Five … four … three … two … one! Go, our horizons!" False fireworks sounds filled the room, while the kids on the stage threw confetti in the air. Those in the crowd cheered and smiled. The hug and hugging hugs were lifted. It was midnight again – except for that moment, there was more electricity.
As exciting as the moment, it was entirely premature. None of us actually knew if the spacecraft had gone through this stone or not. There are no television camera crews in reality in the outer solar system as they roam through robotic space exploration antics. And even if it existed, all content would have a massive delay. The new horizons are so far away in the solar system right now that it takes six hours for a radio signal to reach us here on Earth. That means we can never know what New Horizons does in real time.
So, we just celebrated just what we did hoped just happened.
But the team that operates New Horizons – many of them were in the room with me – have been preparing for this for years and they wanted a party to mark this opportunity. Commands for spacecraft have been carefully crafted and exposed for a long time in the vehicle. All the spaceships were supposed to do as it was said.
Fortunately, New Horizons has gone through all this before. Three and a half years earlier, the spacecraft enlarged by Pluto's dwarf planet, hitting the first close-up images of the tiny world. The event was a great success that captured the nation's attention. But, once it was over, New Horizons continued to sail through the Solar System to meet another rock – a designated MU69 2014 object.
This object was something of mystery. I did not even know it existed until four years ago. Scientists have been able to spot it in 2014 using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which is in orbit around the Earth. But pursuing was a challenge. Approximately 100 times smaller than Pluto, MU69 is small and distant, making it very hard to see. Up to the flight, the only images we had about the object were light or blobs that had only a few pixels. No one in the team knew what to expect.
But New Horizons would gain an ascending vision, revealing for the first time what this object looks like. This strange cliff is located in an area of the Solar System known as the Kuiper Belt, and is not something akin to what we have studied so far. It is so small and so distant from the Sun that it has remained relatively unchanged since the beginning of the Solar System. Scientists believe that in the early days of our solar system, many small objects, such as MU69, eventually gathered to form planets and moons.
MU69 was perfectly positioned so that the New Horizons could pass over the object on its journey beyond Pluto. Since the entire flyby process has been automated, it meant that fans, team members and reporters could gather together at Laurel, Maryland for the historic occasion. There is a mission operations center at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory where the team can monitor the incoming and outgoing signals of spacecraft. Since the flight happened in the early hours of the New Year's Day in 2019, it also meant that the crew was ready to participate in style.
According to the night theme, a huge hall was equipped with lamps and balloons. Today's New Year's Eve was available for guests alongside the streamers. People could take their pictures in front of the exhibits with the New Horizons mission logo. There were huge, white posters that guests could have signed to give the best wishes of the spaceship.
This party was also packed. Johns Hopkins allowed media members and scientists missions to bring guests with them. It was New Year's Eve, after all – a time to spend with loved ones. The children slipped through space, while the children pulled their parents, some of whom were more interested in their smartphones than the festivities. I dragged my fiancée and instructed him to take pictures of this article.
By midnight, scientists with New Horizons hosted panels, describing the science they hoped to do with the spacecraft, and how they studied the outer solar system. All the while, the room became more crowded as people became more animated and more conversational. Several VIPs were also present, especially Queen Guitar Brian May, who is also an astrophysicist. The word was that he planned to release a midnight song dedicated to the New Horizons mission. "My song, my song, my anthem became about the human spirit, trying to discover the universe," he told us earlier this day.
I made a point to talk to some of the New Horizons team members I interviewed before. I asked one, Alex Parker, how it felt that we would finally see this. He was instrumental in finding MU69 first, and I could not imagine what I must feel like to finally see something close that you helped discover. "At this point, they still do not feel completely real," Parker said. "It was something I've been working on for over a decade now." He added, "I'm not completely prepared for that."
Soon, midnight arrived. Plastic champagne glasses were made for guests. After celebrating the New Year's Eve, everyone tried to keep quiet because he presented the song of the crowd pumped. The room was instantly filled with electric guitar riffs, reels, and May's voice suggests lyrics like "New Horizons to explore / New Horizons that no one has ever seen". A projector near the ceiling showed an animated musical video, spaceships spinning through space. It was impossible not to chicote on the scene. A spacecraft, balancing and running.
Once the countdown has ended, the magic of the night quickly disappeared and I escaped as quickly as I could – sleep was now my highest priority. We had to go back to the room in just a few hours to confirm that this spacecraft really survived. After flying, New Horizons would send a signal to Earth to let his team know he is in good health. This signal was scheduled to arrive at 10:30 ET on January 1st. We went up to our hotel and slept as soon as I hit the pillow.
What seemed a moment later, we returned to Johns Hopkins. The same crowd was there, drastically more submissive. I caught a couple of seagulls and saw how people gathered around free coffee dispensers.
We all went to a nearby auditorium and took our seats. From there, I watched a giant screen that showed that people were watching … screens. It was a vivid look at the mission operations center, where mission managers monitored New Horizons data when they came. Compared to yesterday's emotion, the audience felt like a tomb. People spoke in tedious tones, but most of them remained silent. Everyone was eager to know what the data revealed. The hall felt dense as the unpredictable pressure required everyone. My stomach rises sharply.
But then Alice Bowman, the mission manager for New Horizons, began to smile on the screen, and the audience broke into a nervous laugh. Is there good news? Shortly, he began listing the status of each New Horizons subsystem.
"Thermal reports the green state," she said, while the audience broke into wild applause. It did this for every system, including vehicle propulsion, power, computer storage and much more. Once he passed through the checklist, he stood up and said in the room:
"We have a healthy space ship," she said. "We've just made the farthest planes."
The crowd in the auditorium broke out. There was no countdown for this holiday, and the room was full of half-sleeping people, but the applause and applause overwhelmed the mess last night.
Much remains to be learned about MU69. Getting all the juicy details from the flyby will take a long wait. New horizons take long time to send his data, so we did not even get the first close-up picture until the day after the flight. (And now we know that this object looks like a strange snowman.) In fact, it will take 20 months for all the information to come to Earth. This means that there are still numerous findings, but at least we know that our premature celebration was not in vain.