It’s official: The partial federal government shutdown will have interplanetary consequences.
As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft hurtles through the uncharted darkness of deep space, it’s on target for a brief New Year’s Day rendezvous with Ultima Thule, the most distant and primitive object ever to be explored by humankind.
The data gathered by the mission will help scientists understand what conditions were like when our solar system first formed billions of years ago.
But, due to the shutdown, those interested in tuning into the momentous event will be left almost in the dark: There will be no NASA-provided press releases, no social media updates and, perhaps most important to some, no live NASA webcast.
“What’s really a shame is this is truly historic,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern told FLORIDA TODAY Thursday. “It’s the farthest exploration of worlds in history and without NASA able to get the word out, I think it’s going to be very much diminished for the public and that’s an unintended consequence of this shutdown.”
Those wanting to follow New Horizons will have to tune into the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory’s YouTube channel and the website (pluto.jhuapl.edu) for updates.
But Stern fears that APL’s reach is not nearly as big as NASA’s.
“What is going to go down in the history in spaceflight, maybe for a century, as the farthest exploration of all time is going to be the world’s best kept secret because we don’t have the reach,” he said.
The end of the government shutdown appears to have no immediate end in sight as both parties refuse to budge on President Trump’s border wall. About 14,500 NASA employees were sent home without pay while another 3,000 are either working or “on call,” also without pay.
NASA is continuing operations of the International Space Station and other critical missions such as communications and emergency services.
“There’s a lot of talk about the 50th anniversary of Apollo and how great that all was. It was great, but you know that was like people’s grandparents’ time and I know a lot of people who think we can’t do great things anymore,” Stern said.
“Well, here we are, out exploring billions (of) miles beyond Pluto and looking at the very building blocks of the planets with a little American spacecraft that was launched 13 years ago all by itself and is operating perfectly after all this time.”
New Horizons first made history when, on July 14, 2015, after a nine-year journey through our solar system, it flew within 8,000 miles of Pluto’s surface and forever changed the way we think about the little planet.
Pictures taken during the flyby mesmerized audiences and ignited public imagination across the world. No longer was Pluto a lifeless, distant chunk of rock, but a stunningly beautiful world of heart-shaped regions and ice volcanoes covered in orange snow.
On New Year’s Day, Pluto will no longer be the most distant piece of rock in our solar system on which we’ve cast our eyes. The plucky little probe — not much bigger than a grand piano — is set to fix its cameras on Ultima Thule, a planetary body about the size of Orlando in a region beyond Pluto.
Ultima Thule is what is known as a planetismal, a minute planet that could or did come together with many others under gravitation to form larger planets.
“It’s one of the things planets are made of,” Stern said.
Like Pluto, Ultima Thule lives in the Kuiper Belt, the region of the solar system beyond Neptune that contains hundreds of thousands of objects such as asteroids, comets and dwarf planets.
Under the plan, New Horizons will approach Ultima Thule three times closer than the Pluto flyby — 2,175 miles at its closest — and will provide scientists with detailed photographs and data, including high-resolution geological maps.
Aside from studying Ultima Thule, the mission will also provide scientists with more information about the early formation processes of the solar system. Many Kuiper Belt objects have been undisturbed since the dawn of our celestial neighborhood.
“[Ultima Thule] is one of those objects that went into building small planets like Pluto, but also larger planets like Earth and Jupiter,” Stern said. “But this one, because it was born so far from the sun, it’s always been kept at nearly absolute zero temperature and that freezes its evolution, literally freezes it, which is what preserves it so well.”
People can tune into Stern’s twitter feed at @NewHorizons2015 or @AlanStern for live updates of the mission. APL will also broadcast on Periscope next week as the spacecraft approaches Ultima Thule and people can watch live press conferences starting Dec. 31 on their website.
Queen guitarist Brian May, who holds a doctorate degree in astrophysics, will debut a new song dedicated to New Horizons at midnight Jan. 1.
“This is a chance for parents to bring along their kids and see something that’s not just historic, but fascinating,” Stern said.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: The government shutdown is keeping NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in the dark