NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by a small, distant world in the Kuiper Belt on New Year's Day – the place, officially designated 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule, is 4 billion miles from Earth. No spacecraft has ever explored a world so far away.
Several weeks before that flyby the New Horizons team gave people around the world the opportunity to "beam" their name and a choice of messages, at the speed of light, toward New Horizons and Ultima Thule on flyby day – ¬and 30,547 people ultimately signed on. "Happy 2019!" was the top choice, selected by 8,100 participants, followed by "Keep on Exploring!" sent by 6,800 participants.
Transmitted on New Year's Eve from the satellite communications facility at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland – where New Horizons was built and is operated – the signals carrying the messages reached New Horizons just hours before the flyby, then continued on past Ultima Thule and through the Kuiper Belt.
"Never before has the public had an opportunity to have their names and messages across our entire solar system on the historic day of the farthest exploration of worlds in human history," said New Horizons Principal Investigator and "Beam Me" project originator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.
New Horizons' closest approach to Ultima Thule occurred at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1, when it zipped approximately 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) from the object. The spacecraft sent back the first close-up images of its Kuiper Belt target in the following days, confirming that Ultima Thule is a contact binary, and offering tantalizing hints of the science to come.
Follow New Horizons on its voyage through the Kuiper Belt at https://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Mission/Where-is-New-Horizons.php.
Tens of thousands of names and wishes for New Horizons were transmitted to the Kuiper Belt on New Year's Eve from the 60-foot antenna at the satellite communications facility at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft bore down on its flyby target, Ultima Thule.