We spent New Year’s Eve in the Kuiper Belt

We started 2019 at Science News with a bang, providing live coverage of discoveries more than 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been heading for the outer reaches of our solar system since it launched in 2006. After surveying Jupiter and Pluto, its next task was to investigate the mysterious space rock 2014 MU69, dubbed Ultima Thule, orbiting in the Kuiper Belt some 1.6 billion kilometers beyond Pluto. 

The flyby was inconveniently scheduled for the early hours of New Year’s Day, but that didn’t dissuade our intrepid journalists.

Astronomy writer Lisa Grossman and digital director Kate Travis spent weeks developing a coverage plan for our digital platforms, including the Science News website, Twitter and Instagram. Lisa wrote background material in advance so it could be fact-checked and edited. On December 31, she left holiday celebrations with relatives in Minneapolis to travel to the New Horizons mission’s base at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

Lisa started reporting at 2 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and for the next 24 hours posted live updates on Twitter and Instagram with photos and video, as well as lengthier reports on our website, edited by Kate. 

Lisa Grossman
Astronomy writer Lisa Grossman on the scene for the New Horizons flyby. L. Grossman
Scientists celebrated at 12:33 a.m., when the spacecraft should have made its closest approach to MU69. But they hadn’t yet gotten a confirmation signal. You could feel the tension during the wait, Lisa says, and the euphoria when New Horizons finally phoned home at about 10:30 a.m. EST on New Year’s Day.

“My favorite moment was when they got the signal back from the spacecraft on the morning of the first and knew everything had gone well,” Lisa says, “followed closely by seeing that blurry bowling pin picture and learning that their speculation about how MU69 was spinning was probably correct.”

Researchers think continued study of this unusual object will provide clues to the origins of the planets. The spacecraft will transmit data from the flyby for the next 20 months and will scope out other Kuiper Belt objects.

Lisa and Kate have no regrets about working over the holiday, and their efforts paid off. Online audiences were engaged throughout, and the stories sparked lively conversations on the @ScienceNews Twitter feed. Lisa even met Brian May, lead guitarist for the band Queen and a Ph.D. astrophysicist, who came to the Applied Physics Lab for the flyby and wrote a song honoring the expedition.

Our adventure in the Kuiper Belt is a great example of how our digital publishing platforms let us provide timely, in-depth coverage of major news. The goal, as always, is to deliver Science News goodness on the platforms that work best for our readers.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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