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An artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) against a dark sky

Episode 1: New Horizons Ultima Thule Flyby

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In this Episode

Get ready for a front row seat on a history-making mission to the far reaches of the outer solar system! Southwest Research Institute space scientist Alan Stern is leading NASA’s galactic journey to the Kuiper Belt to explore 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule, an object suspended in the “third zone” of our solar system, more than 6 billion kilometers from Earth. The New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day 2019. This is the farthest exploration of an object in space on the fastest spaceship ever launched. Stern tells us how Ultima was discovered, how it got its unique nickname and what information this object frozen in time could hold about the beginnings of our universe. In this episode, an inside look at the upcoming farthest planetary encounter in history.


Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for clarity.

Lisa Peña (LP): We're launching an out of this world conversation in our first episode of the Technology Today Podcast. Coming up, you'll hear from the leader of a NASA space mission. His team is about to send a spacecraft 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth to get a close-up look at an object frozen in time. What is this mystery object? What can it tell us about the universe and about our home planet? That's next on our very first episode of Technology Today.


We live with technology, science, engineering, and the results of innovative research every day. Now, let's understand it better. You're listening to the new Technology Today Podcast, presented by Southwest Research Institute.

Hello, and welcome to Technology Today. I'm your host Lisa Peña. Today, we are talking deep space exploration and an upcoming event that will be a first for humankind, happening New Year's Day 2019. Our guest today is Dr. Alan Stern. Dr. Stern is leading NASA's New Horizons mission.

This is the mission that brought us spectacular never before seen images of Pluto in 2015. And now, New Horizons is onto its next astonishing adventure in the Kuiper Belt, just weeks away from the farthest planetary encounter in history, a staggering 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth. From there, New Horizons will beam back information about an object known as 2014 MU69, also called Ultima Thule. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Stern.

Dr. Alan Stern (AS): It's great to be here. Thanks.

LP: Now, did I say all that correctly?

AS: That was all right on the mark.

LP: Let's talk about Kuiper versus Kuiper. Which one is it?

AS: It's whatever you like.

LP: Whatever feels right.

AS: The whole region is named after a mid-20th century giant in our field. A planetary scientist from Holland, who came to the United States, where he made his career. His name was Gerard Kuiper (English: kaɪpər) or Kuiper (Dutch: kœypər).

LP: Kuiper.

AS: Something like that. Anyway, it's a Dutch name. And it's very well-known now because of this whole third zone of the solar system. The most distant reaches of our planetary system are named after Gerard Kuiper.

LP: So we are going into the Kuiper Belt to take a closer look at Ultima Thule, as you have so sweetly named her. [LAUGHS] So I want to delve into the details and the science in just a moment. But first, I can only imagine your anticipation about this huge moment. What does this mean for you personally?

AS: Well, spaceflight is a team sport. And 2,500 men and women have been involved in building New Horizons. And then a much smaller group, between 1 and 200, on the flight team. And for all of us, this is really the capstone event to this legendary exploration of the deep outer solar system. Exploring worlds farther than have ever been explored. Exploring the dwarf planet, the iconic planet Pluto, and its system of moons. It sounds like science fiction, but it's not.

We, with our mission partners and a team, really designed and built this interplanetary spacecraft. Launched it back in 2006. The fastest spacecraft ever launched. It travels about a million kilometers every day. That means it could go from the Earth to the moon and back a couple of times every day.

And it's going onward and onward, and not only making history, but people say, "Are you rewriting the textbooks?" I like to say, "We're writing the textbooks" about this region of the solar system. No spacecraft has ever been there before. And we're bringing all this high-tech gear, cameras and spectrometers and other sensors, to extend the forefront of human knowledge.

LP: So you mentioned, this does sound like science fiction, but this is real life. This is amazing, to put it lightly. So let's talk about the object itself, the object known as Ultima Thule. When was it discovered? How was it discovered?

AS: Well, we discovered Ultima back in 2014. We had been directed by NASA to build a spacecraft that could go on after Pluto and keep exploring, to study the small building blocks of planets like Pluto. And we tried that using the biggest, baddest telescopes on the ground and we couldn't. We couldn't succeed.

We just couldn't find anything that we could reach with our limited fuel supply, until we enlisted the Hubble Space Telescope to help us in that search. And in the summer of 2014, the Hubble found multiple targets that we could have gone to, out of which we picked one. Which we ultimately named through a naming contest, Ultima Thule, which means beyond the farthest frontiers.

LP: Oh, so someone outside of NASA named it?

AS: Right. On the web. And then the way the website was set up, people could nominate names. And then other people could vote them up, or not. And we had literally 1,000 nominated names. This one rose to be one of the top vote-getters and we picked it out of the top vote-getters as our favorite.

LP: Well, it makes sense. [LAUGHS]

AS: Yeah, it sure does.

LP: What language is that?

AS: It's Latin.

LP: Latin, yeah. All right, so this object, what do we know about it right now?

AS: We don't know very much about its specifics. It's about the size of San Antonio, actually, by coincidence. Pluto is like the size of the United States. And we were looking for something small, that's one of the leftover building blocks. The orbit that this is in tells us that this is kind of a bedrock sample of the original material out of which those distant planets were made.

Because it's so far from the Sun, as you said six billion kilometers, that's four billion miles, it's an unimaginable distance, but it's so far from the Sun that conditions out there are extremely cold, almost at absolute zero, just 40 degrees above absolute zero. And that cold is an asset from our perspective, because it preserves the material and what it's made of. And even preserves the original geology we think, so that we can use the exploration of Ultima, the photographs, the compositional spectra, the other things that we'll be doing as we fly by, as a window back in time to that formation era when the planets were being built.

And no one's ever been to anything like this, so wild and formed so far from the Sun and so well-preserved. So I don't really know what we should expect. We're going in with our eyes wide open and a full battery of sensors and we planned every type of observation we can possibly fit in. The team is geared up for it, we finished all of our mission simulations and we're just weeks away from starting this exploration.

LP: So close to this amazing moment. And you are discussing why it's so important that it is basically frozen in time. What do we want to learn from that material? What is the root of what we want to find out?

AS: It's all about origins. It's all about understanding the material out of which the planets were born. And what the building blocks of these small planets were like, so that we can connect the dots, we call it the dots of accretion: how the planets accreted to their present sizes.

And there are more detailed questions, like does Ultima have moons? Does it have rings? Does it have an atmosphere? What types of surface geology will we see? Will we be able to see into the interior with windows like craters or fissures or other things? But like I said, we're just going in eyes wide open. We have a very healthy spacecraft. A very capable spacecraft, much more capable than even the storied voyagers that explored the giant planets. And so we are gunning to "write the textbook" as I said.

LP: We're ready. I wanted to talk about the shape of Ultima. It's kind of this double sort of--

AS: The lobed.

LP: --ball. Yeah. So what can you tell us about that odd shape?

AS: Well, as I said a little earlier, Ultima is about the size of the city of San Antonio.

LP: Which we are in right now.

AS: Which we are in right now. And we don't really know its true shape. We have some indications that it looks kind of like you took two spheres or almost lumpy spheres and put them in contact with one another. But it might be that those two lobes aren't in contact, that they're orbiting one another. Two separate bodies, like what we call a binary. And it may even have smaller moons as well.

We'll just find out when we get there, because the imagery that we're going to get is going to be very detailed. If we flew over the city of San Antonio at the same altitude that we'll fly over Ultima, and look down at the Southwest Research campus, we could literally count the buildings on the campus and tell their shapes. We couldn't spot cars, not quite that good. But the resolution is just phenomenal. We could make street maps of San Antonio--

LP: Yeah, that's amazing.

AS: --at the resolution we will have. So we'll know a lot about it by the time that this flyby is over.

LP: That's close. That's exciting. So let's talk about the spacecraft itself, New Horizons. It's phenomenal. What are some of the unique characteristics of New Horizons?

AS: Well, New Horizons, we designed it in the early 2000s. As I said, we launched it in 2006. It was built at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, our main partner in this project. So it was built up in Maryland. It's a very high-tech little spacecraft. And it is small. It was built to be small and lightweight so we could launch it as fast as possible. It only weighs about 1,000 pounds. That includes the fuel that's on-board.

It's nuclear-powered, because we're so far from the Sun that you can't use sunlight, you can't use solar rays. It has on-board computers and navigation systems, a communication system to relay data back to the Earth and to take instructions and commands, flight plans from us. On-board flash memories to store the data. It has a propulsion system, so that we can aim and home in on our targets. And also, control jets that allow us to turn the spacecraft and point the cameras and spectrometers.

So it's really a complete spacecraft system, even like much larger systems like the Cassini Saturn Orbiter that weighed more than 10,000 pounds. But we miniaturized everything down to the extent that the seven scientific instruments on-board together weigh less than just the camera on the Cassini Saturn Orbiter. And all seven together only draw 30 watts. That's half a light bulb. So it's amazingly power efficient.

LP: What does it take to build a spacecraft that you know is going to go farther than any spacecraft in history? What are those beginning moments like where you're sitting in a room putting plans together and you know that this spacecraft has to make history, essentially?

AS: Well, let me answer by first saying very generally the two most important ingredients to doing anything like this are first having a talented and committed team of people. And the New Horizons team is just unbelievable. It always has been, because it was such a prized mission to be a part of.

And secondly, by the early 2000s when we designed it and built it, we had been doing interplanetary spaceflight as a country for 40 years. And so really it sounds corny, but it's true. We stood on the shoulders of the giants who invented how to do all this with the early missions and a lot of mistakes back in the '60s and '70s and they perfected it in the '80s and '90s. And we just built the latest highest tech version of that.

The way you start is you write down your objectives and you break those objectives down into very detailed requirements. For example, we want to learn about Pluto and Kuiper Belt, so we have to bring cameras and spectrometers. And that means that they're going to collect data, so we need a radio telecommunications system. And then if you calculate how many images you're going to take and how many spectra and the total number of bits, that tells you how big the memory has to be. And then from that you can also calculate how big a transmitter you need to be able to send all that data back in a reasonable amount of time.

And you just keep breaking it down into more and more detailed requirements for propulsion, navigation, guidance for the on-board computer systems, for each of the scientific instruments. And when you get all those lists of all the requirements, then you can start your design to satisfy those requirements. And that's a long process. It took a couple of years. And during that time, we also selected our launch vehicle, the Lockheed Martin Atlas V, which is just a giant rocket, the size of a downtown skyscraper in San Antonio.

We put that under contract in a special purpose third stage, and we contracted the Department of Energy to deliver a nuclear power generator fueled with plutonium. And then we built our mission control. And as the spacecraft parts came in, we assembled it, and tested it, and tested it, and tested it some more. And once it was ready to go, we shipped it down to Florida on an airplane. And then we launched it on the 19th of January 2006.

LP: And it was go-time.

AS: It was go.

LP: And all of that hard work, I imagine you're watching in anticipation, wondering is it going to work the way we planned. Is there some apprehension there or is there pretty much certainty at this point that it's going to do what it's meant to do?

AS: Well, we've gotten pretty good at spaceflight, so it ought to work. But there's no backup for New Horizons. There's no New Horizons 2. If the rocket had failed, if the spacecraft hadn't behaved correctly, if we ever made a mistake in the way that we're flying it for a dozen years now across the solar system, it would have been game over. And the same thing is true when we flew by Pluto and it will be true when we fly by Ultima on New Year's Eve.

If we don't get it right, there's no go-back. We're traveling at 30 something thousand miles an hour and we will be gone past Ultima, and there's no way to make a U-turn and come back, and do a redo to try it again. So we worked very hard to try to think of everything, to test everything, and to create plans that are resilient. For example, if we're a little bit off course or if Ultima is not exactly where we expect it, we've definitely built buffers in for those kinds of things and actually for a lot more.

LP: What was it like that moment that New Horizons flew by Pluto? I imagine you're in a room and there's a lot of excitement. When you got that data back with never before seen data images, what was that like?

AS: Well, we were at our mission control and we had about almost 2,000 VIPs and guests there. Many dozens of people from Southwest Research Institute, the science team, some of the engineering team. Also, a number of dignitaries and executives. And then, of course, officials from NASA and other government agencies. Almost 200 members of the press. And we knew exactly when the spacecraft would fly by to the moment. And we did a 10, 9, 8 countdown. And then there was a big celebration. And within a matter of hours, we had the first high-resolution images that had been transmitted back over all these billions of miles of space coming back by radio signal at the speed of light. So whereas, it took our spacecraft nine and half years at this amazing high velocity to get out there, the radio signals can travel back in just the space of a morning. And we built up those images and displayed them and it went completely viral.

LP: Yeah, it's amazing. Amazing is a little word to describe what you and your team have done for all of us to be able to see that and experience that. That's beyond amazing. So maybe we'll recreate this New Year's Eve, New Year's Day.

AS: It is. It's larger than life. This is the farthest exploration that's ever been done in history. No world at any distance, we are a billion miles past Pluto. And Pluto itself is hundreds of millions of miles further than any planet that had ever been explored before it. These are just unimaginable distances. And to think that this is why so many really talented people wanted to be on this project, is to be a part of something that you really feel like is not only larger than life, but that creates a legacy for all mankind, for knowledge. And it sets an example of what people can do when they have a dream and they work very hard.

LP: Yeah, do you ever pinch yourself and you're like this is my life, this is what I do for work everyday, this is spectacular.

AS: I do. But I think all of us on New Horizons do that from time to time. You work on it every day and you think of it as the people you work with and the tools you use on your computer. But when you really think about the majesty and the scope of it, like I said, it sounds like science fiction, but it's not.

LP: It's crazy. Crazy in the most amazing way. So there are some risks, correct, with the New Year's Day flyby.

AS: There are.

LP: What are some of those risks? What are some of the concerns?

AS: Well, you know, all exploration involves risks. In our case, the first thing that probably people would be interested to know is that this is a lot harder than Pluto. The spacecraft's older. The power levels are lower. It's farther from the Earth and the Sun. So the light levels are a lot lower, it's darker out there, and it takes longer to communicate, if a problem occurs. It takes 12 hours round-trip from a problem occurring to our knowing about it on the Earth to being able to send up rescue commands. 12 hours is a long time if something's going wrong.

We don't really know much about Ultima, the target. We don't know whether it's surrounded by debris and you don't want to fly through debris at 30 something thousand miles an hour. That would shred the spacecraft. So there are a lot of risks out there and, of course, there's the risk that we haven't done something right. That there is a bug in our computer code, that's the flight plan. Or that something on-board the spacecraft, which has been very reliable, but there's always the chance that because we're stressing it a lot when we do the flybys, it's having to do many things all in a short period of time, that something could fail.

But we plan for that, too. We have software on-board the spacecraft that can detect failures in the guidance system, propulsion system, the main computers, and switch to backup units, for example. So we try to think of everything we can think of that's practical. But if we weren't taking risks, I don't think we'd be doing our job.

LP: And I understand you had some dress rehearsals, so to speak, for the big moment.

AS: We have, we've done dozens of training and simulation exercises to make sure that the team is well-prepared, but also that all of our software tools and all our analysis tools are ready to go, too. And we are, we're at that point now. We're just less than eight weeks from the flyby and we're bearing down on Ultima, which is still in our cameras just a dot in the distance, still almost 50 million miles away and every day we take a better part of a million miles off that. And 33 minutes into the new year on January 1, 2019, this spacecraft will swoop down over Ultima, three times closer than it flew by Pluto, and should start returning imagery and other data types the very next day.

LP: What a way to bring in 2019.

AS: It is.

LP: Amazing. What is next for New Horizons after the Ultima flyby?

AS: Well, first, we're on a five-year mission to study the Kuiper Belt. And Ultima is what I call the centerpiece of the five-year mission, because we're going so close to Ultima. But we're actually studying almost 30 other objects in the Kuiper Belt with our telescopes and cameras and so forth. And we have a lot of that left to do. We're also studying the environment out there, the radiation environment, the impact environment, other aspects of it, the gas from the sun that's out there, to understand the environment that Ultima lives in and Pluto lives in.

That mission will continue until 2021. And by the way, during that period, we have to transmit all the data back from Ultima. And we take so much data, that it's going to take more than a year and a half from January 1, 2019, into the late summer of 2020, before the last bits of it are back on the Earth.

And then, we're going to write a proposal to NASA to keep exploring. The spacecraft is healthy. It's got plenty of power to run out into the 2030s. It's got enough fuel to do several more extended missions. And we'll map out what we can do, possibly including another flyby even further out, and other types of science. And if NASA thinks that that's worthy of spending their money, then they'll put us under contract to keep exploring.

LP: Tell us a little bit more about the Kuiper Belt. Why is this area of space so fascinating and such an important area to explore further?

AS: You know, the way our solar system is arranged, in close to the Sun are the four rocky planets. We call them the terrestrial planets: Earth, Venus, Mars, and Mercury. And then there's an asteroid belt. And then beyond that are the four giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

And everything from the Sun, to Mercury, past the Earth, all the way out until you get to Neptune, is really very much the inner part of our solar system and the stuff that's warmed by the Sun and that has evolved over time. Many fascinating things to study about planetary environments. What they can teach us about the Earth, about the evolution of development of life. Maybe there are, we know there are other places with oceans, maybe there are other places with life.

But beyond that is this third zone. Beyond the terrestrial planets and the giant planets is the Kuiper Belt, which is the leftover remnants of the formation era. This kind of archaeological dig into the history of our planetary system. And this zone is far larger than everything else combined from Neptune all the way down to the Sun.

And because it's cold as I described earlier, it's freezing cold, almost absolute zero, things are just very well-preserved. And because it's large, things are very spread out, they don't run into each other very often. And it is really a museum piece back into history four billion years ago. And that's the value of the Kuiper Belt is our ability to look back in time to understand the origin of our planetary system.

LP: Will it tell us anything about our home, Earth?

AS: Well, certainly it tells us things about the Earth. The formation of planets like Pluto is related to the way that the Earth formed. And by studying ancient objects like Ultima, will help us understand the origin of the Earth. But also, it's thought that a lot of the organic material that was the feedstock for the early evolution of life and a lot of the water that came to the Earth came from the Kuiper Belt.

We've never had a spacecraft out there studying objects like Ultima before, so learning about the composition of that stuff and how it may have evolved in the early days, will certainly be instructive to helping us understand the origin of the Earth and the stuff we depend upon, the water and the organics, to make life.

LP: That is fascinating that so far away from us, this some six billion kilometers away, we could get basically little parts of the recipe that made us. [LAUGHS]

AS: Well, sometimes you have to leave home to learn about it. I think a lot of us find that out when we emerge from our parent's cocoon. And people who came to North America as explorers, learned a lot about not only themselves, but about history and about the world by doing it, by going far away from home.

LP: So, do you think that we will find any new planets out there with New Horizons as it continues on its journey?

AS: Well, I know that over time we'll find many more planets in our solar system. I think that case is almost iron clad. But New Horizons doesn't have the capability to search for them. We're good at going close to things that we know about already. And because of some technical limitations, the size of our telescopes are fairly small and the bit rates that we can send imagery back, it's really best to search from the giant telescopes on the Earth, rather than New Horizons.

LP: So I wanted to talk a little bit about you, personally. I wanted to know what are your origins in the world of space science. How did you end up in this deep exploration of space in this area that you're in now?

AS: Well, when I was a little boy, I used to watch space missions on TV and I thought I want to be a part of that. And fortunately, I was good at science and math and went to school-I went to college and studied science, physics, studied engineering, studied astronomy. Eventually, took a Ph.D. in astrophysics. And I always wanted to be a part of pioneering space missions.

And I've been very fortunate, in large measure because the Southwest Research Institute, where I went to work almost just within a year or so of getting my doctoral degree, has presented so many opportunities and has been a place where I could accomplish my dreams. And as a result, I've been on 29 space missions. New Horizons is one of them. I've been fortunate to be a principal investigator, to lead on 14 of the 29. It's just been a dream come true.

LP: Could you have envisioned this as a boy?

AS: Oh, I don't know what I would have thought. If you would have told 8-year-old Alan that somebody he would lead a mission to explore Pluto, I would have just started doing somersaults or something, who knows.


LP: This is beyond your wildest dreams.

AS: Probably, yeah.

LP: And you had no idea what the Kuiper Belt was then or how it would impact your life.

AS: It had never been, really, it hadn't been discovered. It was 25 years in the future, so of course not.

LP: Yeah, of course not. So what is your biggest hope for this next leg of the New Horizons mission of the Ultima flyby?

AS: My biggest hope is that it's successful. Because if it is successful, I think it really will teach us a lot, as I said, about the origin of the planets and to some extent about the origin of the material that is so necessary on Earth for life to evolve. But I also hope very much that my team has the time to really savor it. It's so special to be a part of these very quick flybys, but you work for years planning it.

Before that we spent years flying across the solar system to get there. And before that we spent years designing and building a spacecraft. And this has been almost a 20-year project, and many of the people on New Horizons have been on it the entire time. It's kind of a family. And we did all this to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, and it's showtime.

LP: It's showtime. [LAUGHS] Definitely. Well, I will be thinking of you on New Year's Day and rooting for the New Horizons team. This is beyond exciting, fascinating, a huge mission for not just your team, but for the world I would say. And your big plans on New Year's Day is just to be watching that data come in.

AS: Yeah, and then trying to make sense of it for NASA and the world, because there's going to be a lot of press coverage. Maybe you can be there. I know that Southwest will be there in force. And there's not a lot of news usually being made on New Year's Eve. And certainly, something this historic rarely happens on New Year's Eve.

So I'm hoping that we can engage children to have an interest in science and engineering careers. That we can make people in our country and around the world proud of what human beings can do when they put their mind to it. And that the knowledge that we develop is the next brick in the wall of understanding just how all this came to be.

LP: So the timeline right now is New Year's Eve. There will be the approach and then you said 33 minutes past midnight the flyby will actually, the closest encounter will take place?

AS: That's right. Yeah. And then the spacecraft will continue taking data for a couple of days as we fly away at high speed and it will start sending the data back on January 1. And as I said, that'll take a long time over 18 months, maybe 20 months. So the timeline is actually pretty extended, but it just means every week, for 70 or 80 weeks, presents will be arriving from the Kuiper Belt by radio. New kinds of data to open up and learn.

LP: Yeah, I love that. Little gifts from the beyond. [LAUGHS]

AS: From New Horizons. That's right.

LP: Yeah, great. Well, Dr. Stern this has been a fascinating conversation. You're a true explorer of our time. Thank you for giving us this inside look into this fascinating mission, New Horizons, making history for all of us. And we're ready to meet you Ultima Thule, right? [LAUGHS]

AS: We are. And thanks for your interest and go, New Horizons.

LP: Of course. And with that, thank you for listening to us today.

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