The effects of the federal government shutdown have resonated through all corners since it began on December 22, and NASA is not immune. For anyone that’s been looking forward to the long-awaited New Horizons probe’s January 1 flyby of KBO 2014 MU69 — better known as “Ultima Thule” — the shutdown couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Just after midnight on New Year’s Day, New Horizons is scheduled to zip past Ultima Thule, an ancient Kuiper Belt object roughly 4 billion miles from the sun. NASA was all set to live stream the event, historic because Ultima Thule would be the farthest object from Earth that humans have ever studied, but then the government shutdown hit.
While the live stream of a space event may pale in comparison to the other effects of the shutdown, like the US Office of Personnel Management suggesting that federal employees trade manual labor for rent while they’re furloughed, it’s still a big deal for civilians and scientists who follow space exploration news.
But never fear: There’s a backup plan.
Normally the event would stream on NASA TV, but unless the federal government reopens before New Year’s Day, NASA will just be tweeting the event. Instead, viewers can tune in to Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab’s stream of the flyby.
The Hopkins APL YouTube channel will play the event live, letting viewers take part in the biggest space event of 2019.
As Inverse previously reported, the Ultima Thule flyby is a big deal because this classical Kuiper Belt object is likely one of the oldest objects in our solar system. As such, its composition could give NASA scientists some insight into what the formation of the solar system was like.
The Ultima Thule mission is actually a secondary objective for New Horizons, which completed its primary goal when it flew by Pluto back in 2015. But on January 1, the probe will pass much closer to Ultima Thule than it came to Pluto — 2,200 miles versus 7,800 miles away from Pluto.
For the most part, New Horizons’ approach has gone as planned, but project scientists started noticing some odd readings before Christmas. As Inverse reported then, Ultima Thule did not seem to be reflecting light in the way that scientists expected it would. Scientists proposed that it could be the object’s rotation throwing off the measurements, or perhaps it was obscured by a dust cloud. One hypothesis even proposes that Ultima Thule could be surrounded by many tiny moons. The probe’s measurements should settle the question.
Stay tuned to the Johns Hopkins feed just after midnight on New Year’s Day to see what happens.