Dr. Alan Stern ’75 rang in the new year by expanding the boundaries of human exploration. Thirty minutes after midnight on January 1, 2019, the New Horizons Principal Investigation and his team at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory cheered as, four billion miles away, their craft hurtled past Ultima Thule, a small icy body on the far edge of our solar system.
"New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history," said Dr. Stern. "Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body at such high speed so far away in the abyss of space."
While it will take nearly two years for the spacecraft to beam back all of the photos and data from the flyby, scientists have already made some extraordinary discoveries. Early images reveal Ultima Thule to be a “contact binary” object, shaped like a snowman. The team says that the two spheres likely joined as early as 99 percent of the way back to the formation of the solar system, colliding no faster than two cars in a fender-bender. Since Ultima Thule was formed so longer ago, scientists hope to find clues in the fylby data about the origins of our Solar System.
As Dr. Stern explains, “Everything that we're going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology, to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere, and that kind of thing - is going to teach us about the original formation conditions in the Solar System that all the other objects we've gone out and orbited, flown by and landed on can't tell us because they're either large and evolve, or they are warm. Ultima is unique."
Having flown through space for more than 4,700 days, New Horizons’ mission could still continue. The craft has enough fuel to explore other, even more distant objects in the Kuiper Belt. But for now, scientists will spend years digging into the trove of data from this historic flyby.
New Horizons’ historic flyby comes just as St. Mark’s expands its own horizons with the opening of the Winn Science Center. On Wednesday, January 9, students will return from Christmas break to 50,000 square feet of new science education spaces. This new facility will inspire a new generation of Marksmen, just as the McDermott-Green Math-Science Quadrangle inspired students before, such as Alan Stern.
"The Winn Science Center is going to be an amazing resource for all young Marksmen, but most particularly so for those interested in STEM," Dr. Stern said. "What a great milestone the opening represents!”
Since graduating from St. Mark’s, Alan Stern has returned multiple times to speak with students and has been named a Distinguished Alumnus.