Let’s pause from the chaos of the U.S. federal government -- with its breakdowns and shutdowns -- the volatility of the stock market and the never-ending debates over the structure of the College Football Playoff and recognize an unprecedented human and technological achievement: the capture and transmission of revealing photographs of a giant snowman in the most distant reaches of space ever explored.
Yes, a snowman.
Although the photographs of Ultima Thule reveal no stovetop hat, button nose or eyes made of coal on what appears to be a crude snowman, they have provided scientists with the best view ever of a “contact binary” at the far edge of the solar system.
The mission alone was an amazing feat. A collaborative of American organizations, including NASA, sent the New Horizons spacecraft -- which resembles a giant satellite television cone mounted on a truck engine -- within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule, traveling at more than 31,000 miles per hour.
Managing the logistics alone was a marvel.
New Horizons was launched in January 2006, primarily to fly by and collect photos of and data from Pluto. In July 2015, New Horizons became the first spacecraft to closely (well, within 7,800 miles) explore Pluto.
The existence of Ultima Thule wasn’t known until 2014, and images of it from Earth and from other satellites were fuzzy and were feared to be imprecise.
But NASA and its partners at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Southwest Research Institute dramatically adapted the mission -- on the fly. They used photographs and complex equations to enable the spacecraft to get close enough to capture images clearly showing Ultima Thule’s two icy orbs are clearly connected.
Scientists understood that contact binary objects existed far outside the solar system but were uncertain whether they existed in a realm exposed only to the lowest levels of sunlight. They believe the study of Ultima Thule will shed light on the formation of planets and the evolution of the universe and beyond.
There is particular interest in Ultima Thule because, due to its relative lack of exposure to heat from sunlight, it is likely to have changed little since its estimated formation 4.5 billion years ago.
The intrigue about this giant, old snowman has been compounded not only by its distance from earth but by the mystery of existence -- reflected in its name. As The Economist reported this week, to the ancient Greeks, Thule was a legendary island somewhere in the distant and frozen North. Medieval mapmakers added “ultima,” Latin for “farthermost,” to emphasize the point.
Well, the New Horizons mission, building upon its previous success of the Pluto exploration, placed an exclamation point on the name.
Leaders of the mission were quick to laud the teamwork that led to yet another successful leg of New Horizons’ mission and its passage by Ultima Thule -- which is about the size of Washington, D.C. There is some irony there.
So, when the world presents so many distractions, let’s take the time to greet this advancement with wonder, awe and appreciation for scientific progress.