back to article NASA flies plane through Earthly shadow of Kuiper Belt object

NASA has flown a plane through shadow of Kuiper Belt object 6.6bn kilometres from Earth. The object is 2014 MU69, a maybe-40km-across more than 1.5bn km past Pluto that is the New Horizons mission's next port of call after its encounter with Pluto. Humanity has precisely zero close-up experience of such objects and we've only …

  1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    (Illustration not to scale)

    You don't say!

    1. MonkeyBob

      Re: (Illustration not to scale)

      (Kuiper belt, other stars not included)

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: (Illustration not to scale)

        A friend of mine did a similar thing with ASCIIart and 11x17 fan-fold paper. He was nearly fired from his job at NASA (Ames Research Center, Moffett Field) the first time he printed it out. Later, it was much loved by kids in the Palo Alto Unified School District, usually printed out & displayed with a similar view of the Stanford Linear Accelerator, and a mosaic of SRI's Dish.

  2. EddieD


    "So enough with the conspiracy theories, okay?"

    Oh dear, they've got Simon under control now.

  3. Your alien overlord - fear me
    Black Helicopters

    I heard they used the scope to peer into North Korea to see their ICBM sites....

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Wouldn't that mean the plane would have to fly upside down? Aerobatics in a 747 sounds fun...

      1. Meph
        Thumb Up

        "Aerobatics in a 747 sounds fun..."

        Your definition of fun seems interesting*

        * "Interesting" is clearly defined as "Oh god, oh god, we're all going to die".

        1. TheDillinquent
          1. Vinyl-Junkie

            Re: 747 Barrel roll

            That's a 707 but, yes, the principle is the same; it's a 1G manoeuvre and is therefore well within the stress limits of the 747. Whether anyone has ever barrel-rolled a 747 I couldn't say...

    2. imanidiot Silver badge

      Unlikely, the scope is physically incapable of pointing towards the earth (or even close to horizontal). So unless they did a barrel roll to achieve an angle... (And why bother when there are dozens spy sattelites in orbit around earth capable of pretty much reading a license plate from orbit). They also still have a fleet of U-2 spyplanes for these purposes much more suited for those missions than a scope only capable of seeing in IR wavelengths

  4. jake Silver badge

    I guess technically that's a shadow ...

    ... but talk about small values of shadow! Good navigation, folks.

  5. steelpillow Silver badge


    They should (re)name their ship "Starshadow"

    1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

      Re: Starshadow

      And the crew Shadow Chasers; would make a nice mission patch.

  6. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    I'm lost

    So, it's an asteroid 6.6 billion km out in the Kuiper Belt, that New Horizons is supposed to rendez-vous with. But suddenly said asteroid is passing between us and the Sun and we even put a plane in its shadow.

    Article is a bit confusing, at first read I thought we put a plane in the shadow of something 6.6bn km away and thought : "not possible, even for NASA".

    Anyways, this page clears up a lot of things. MU69 is traveling at an average speed of 4.47km/s (or 0.1491% of a sheep in vacuum), while New Horizons is currently whizzing along at 13km/s (0.4336% of sheep in vacuum).

    Ah, the wonders of space. New Horizons is traveling almost three times faster, is already farther than Pluto, but it's going to take until the first day of 2019 to get to the same point.

    1. uncredited

      Re: I'm lost

      "in front of A sun" not "in front of THE sun", although "in front of a star" would probably have been clearer.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: I'm lost

        "in front of a star" would probably have been clearer.

        It certainly would. What's el Reg coming to?

        1. Rich 11 Silver badge

          Re: I'm lost

          Maybe El Reg knows more than they're saying about our primary's binary partner, out in the far-flung reaches beyond the Kuiper Belt. This unfortunate slip of the finger could finally be the wedge we need to crack open wide the conspiracy of silence surrounding the existence of alien life, the realm of which the Voyager probes are now within a few decades of exploring.

          Or possibly not.

    2. steelpillow Silver badge

      Re: I'm lost

      Not really. It was the shadow of a different sun and nothing to do with New Horizons. In more common terms it was a transit event, in which the MU69 passed across in front of a distant star. The magic was in predicting it and getting the plane to the right place at the right time.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I'm lost

        Magic indeed. Little off topic, but at a uni open day last week, the daughter had a sample physics lecture, which I sat in on. She was okay, but is real geeky, I didn't get a lot of it. Special Relativity. For me, most amazing stuff mentioned were the calculations done by James Bradley in the early 1700's around light aberration, which helped him work out the speed of light, among other things. At least the chaps at NASA have a few decent 'puters to help them do stuff like mentioned in the story. Back then, Bradley probably only had a 286. Anyhoo, astonishing stuff from NASA, which makes me wish I had an interesting job.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: I'm lost

          Bradley probably only had a 286.

          Don't be ridiculous! The PC wasn't invented in the 18th Century.

          He used a ZX Spectrum as any fule kno...

          1. oldfartuk

            Re: I'm lost

            Its must have been the 17th Century, otherwise how did Pierre de Fermat solve his Last Theorem? He obviously did it on a Trash-80....

    3. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: I'm lost

      I'm glad I'm not the only one who missed the little word (letter?) 'a' in front of 'sun'.

      I was wondering if it had an incredibly eccentric orbit.

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Conspiracy theory

        Now that the cat's out of the bag, NASA might as well come clean. 2014 MU69 was struck by Voyager 1 a few years ago, knocking it out of its orbit (it was really struck hard, honest!)

        It is transiting in front of the sun so they took the opportunity to take some measurements, and now know exactly where it will strike. In a few weeks it will strike the Earth in the Atlantic approximately 500 miles SW of the Canaries. This will cause a tidal wave 1200 ft high on the Irish and French coasts and 200 ft at NYC. They hadn't told anyone yet because Trump wants to sell his NYC properties before it is made public. The whole Russia thing is a fake news smokescreen to distract people from noticing how quickly he's selling all his holdings, done in cooperation with the NYT because they plan to sell their HQ and relocate to Pittsburgh.

        1. qwertyuiop

          Re: Conspiracy theory

          "...2014 MU69 was struck by Voyager 1... - it just pulled out in front of me, no warning. It didn't use its mirrors or signal.

      2. I am the liquor

        Re: I'm lost

        When the sense of the whole article depends on a single "a" instead of a "the", you have to suspect El Reg is basically trolling the readership. I wonder if there was a sweepstake on how many poor saps would be tricked into making fools of themselves in the comments.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: I'm lost

          @ I am the liquor: Yeah? What's your point?

          1. I am the liquor

            Re: I'm lost

            @Jake: well, I want to know who won the sweepstake.

  7. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Great boffinry. Looking forward to the results

  8. myhandler

    Thanks for the clarification on 'a sun' v 'the sun.'

    Was Simon Sharwood being bloody-minded or is he just crap at explaining?

    It's called disambiguation, me old china.

  9. rh587

    Top class boffinry right there.

    You've earned one of these chaps (and chapesses) --->

  10. The_H

    Gobsmackingly impressive

    Impressive enough that you can work out that a tidgy bit of rock a few billion km's away is going to pass in front of a star which is several light years further off.

    More impressive that you can then work out the angle that's all going to happen at, so that it's visible from earth.

    But getting a 747 to precisely the right place, above a rotating, orbiting planet, at precisely the right time, so that you can photograph the damn event happening... that's jaw-dropping. Makes what Kepler does seem like a doddle.

    Beers all round to the people involved (and especially the one who said "Yeah, we can do this"). Me, I just hope I never get beyond being totally and utterly gobsmacked at this sort of thing.

  11. Daedalus Silver badge

    Steady on, chaps

    Bits of hyperbole creeping in so far. The object didn't "whizz". It's out beyond Pluto and moving much slower than the Earth is. It would be more accurate to say that the Earth "whizzed" through the object's shadow. The footprint of the shadow was about the same size as the object itself, somewhere between 18 and 45 km. The shadow would have travelled at something like the Earth's orbital speed, which is maybe 50x faster than a jet. Probably the "occultation" (the official word) lasted only a few seconds.

    1. Vinyl-Junkie

      Re: Steady on, chaps

      It whizzed:

      "The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding

      In all of the directions it can whizz"

      So although its motion relative to Earth is slow (by astronomical standards) it's still "whizzing" from a galactic perspective.

    2. Captain Badmouth

      Re: Steady on, chaps

      Don't mention the occult, this thread will go on forever.

  12. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    It's a neat piece of lateral thinking.

    And when you've spent years getting there to do this you want as much safety as you can get.

  13. steamrunner

    Shadows of tiny objects billions of miles away cast upon the surface of the Earth by the light of another star... and they managed to a) calculate that and then b) put a 747 in-flight in precisely the right spot at precisely the right moment?

    Mind. Officially. Blown.

    Humans can be pretty damned amazing at times.

    1. SkippyBing Silver badge

      Me too, my navigation is normally only good enough to get me to the correct field around the right time. For very generous values of the word right.

  14. Peter X

    MU Year Party*

    "At least until January 1st 2019, when New Horizons arrives at 2014 MU69."

    Awww... it'll just miss the MU69 New Year celebrations, which according to Trip Adviser, are out of this wor... not to be missed.

    * apologies for the pun

  15. SteveastroUk

    There's a branch of amateur astronomy dedicated to watching these occulations with networks of cameras placed on the predicted track of the event. Then its possible to deduce the occulting objects shape, mass, spin etc. Bloody subtle. Some guys put out a 10 mile track, with cameras and integrated GPS clocks every 1/2 mile.

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