NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Summiting the Solar System" is a story of exploration at its most ambitious and extreme. The feature-length documentary is debuting in December 2018, just before NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flies by a small Kuiper Belt Object known scientifically as 2014 MU69, but nicknamed "Ultima Thule."
Chosen by the team and the public, the nickname honors the mythical land beyond the edges of the known world. On January 1, 2019, Ultima – four billion miles from Earth – will be the most ancient and most distant world ever explored close up, and is expected to offer discoveries about the origin and evolution of our solar system.
But "Summiting" is much more than the story of a sophisticated, plutonium-fueled robotic spacecraft exploring far from the Sun. The New Horizons mission is powered as much by the passions of a small team of humans—men and women, scientists and engineers—for whom pushing the frontiers of the known, climbing the very peaks of the possible, has been the dream of many decades.
"Summiting" goes behind the scenes of the most ambitious occultation campaigns ever mounted, as scientists deployed telescopes to Senegal and Colombia in 2018, and Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand in 2017, to glimpse Ultima as it passed in front of a star, and gathered data on the object's size and orbit that has been essential to planning the flyby. Mission scientists recall the astonishing scientific success of flying through the Pluto system in 2015, and use comparative planetology to show how Earth and Pluto are both amazingly different and—with glaciers, tall mountains, volcanoes and blue skies—awesomely similar. Appealing to space junkies and adrenaline junkies alike, "Summiting" brings viewers along for the ride of a lifetime as New Horizons pushes past Pluto and braves an even more hazardous unknown.
And as with climbing Everest, this mission braved dangers that could have ended in failure. A serious computer glitch just 10 days before the Pluto flyby required heroics from a dedicated team of mission ops engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab; having little time to figure out what happened, then develop, test and upload new commands, they succeeded …with just four hours to spare. This dramatic story is told in "Summiting" for the first time, through emotional interviews with the men and woman who recovered from the anomaly.
"Summiting" anticipates the new discoveries of the New Year, as New Horizons explores the new frontier of our solar system's third zone—the Kuiper Belt. However, the perseverance, pluck, drive and ambition of those who made New Horizons' long journey possible are the stuff of the epic, age-old human drive to climb the highest mountains, explore the most distant lands, and reach every peak and pole.
Credit: Geoff Haines Stiles of Geoff Haines Stiles Productions (GHSPi)
How did members of the New Horizons team view the mission before it was even approved for launch? Watch segments of these interviews from early 2005.