New Horizons Triumphs Again

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Some likened it to a snowman. Others to a peanut. Still others to an embryonic dinosaur. Ultima Thule, a mottled and malformed space rock at the farthest edge of the solar system, got its first close-up photos this week thanks to NASA’s New Horizons mission. They offered a glimpse of the most distant object ever visited by man-made machinery — and perhaps the strangest.

Ultima Thule hadn’t even been discovered when New Horizons was launched in 2006. NASA decided to visit it only after the probe had completed a flyby of Pluto in 2015 and had some fuel to spare. Reaching it was an exacting challenge — it’s small, dim and 4 billion miles away — and demanded a global effort that led to much-warranted celebration. (Brian May, astrophysicist and erstwhile guitar god, even composed a commemorative tune.)

But its true significance may not be understood for some time. Studying the object, formed when two orbiting spheres collided and coalesced billions of years ago, could eventually yield clues about the earliest days of the solar system and shed light on how planets form. It could improve understanding of the Kuiper belt, the vast field of icy debris swirling beyond Neptune. It might turn up something entirely unexpected.

In this way, it’s probably the future of spacefaring. Although NASA’s crewed missions have been rightfully celebrated — in history books and at the box office — its robotic successes may prove more significant in the long run. Since the Explorer 1 satellite set sail from Cape Canaveral in 1958, the U.S. has been flinging machinery into space with ever-increasing speed and ambition, even as its plans for future crewed endeavors have grown hazier.

That’s no bad thing. In fact, New Horizons — built and operated out of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory — suggests that the best is yet to come. Its onboard equipment and processing power have enabled unprecedented analysis of distant bodies. Its relative affordability — $700 million or so — means NASA can do more with less. And with 15 or 20 years of service left, other serendipitous missions may still lie ahead.

As glorious as the Apollo program and its successors were, they could never have allowed for such improvisation. In the years ahead, missions like New Horizons — combining human ingenuity and robotic efficiency — will able to explore new parts of the universe, study more remote worlds, or examine whatever cosmic oddities their masters point them toward, untethered by the limitations of the human body. Add in the booming private space business and the possibilities only expand.

Hollywood may not make movies about these missions. They’ll require less risk and heroism than getting to the moon, and perhaps a bit more inventiveness and imagination. But they’ll provide a worthy next chapter in the six-decade American space experiment — and maybe the most interesting one yet.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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