UT-Austin alumnus Alan Stern talks about NASA Kuiper Belt mission

Graysen Golter

The Kuiper Belt lies at the edge of our solar system and contains celestial bodies such as comets, asteroids and ice rocks. Alan Stern, lead principal investigator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s mission to the Kuiper Belt, spoke at a seminar on Friday to discuss the results and challenges of the mission.

The NASA New Horizons Mission’s goal was to conduct the first flyby investigation and mapping of the Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule. The object is located about four billion miles away from the sun, making the mission to explore Ultima Thule the record holder for the most distant exploration of worlds after reaching the object Jan. 1.

“Of course the real reason we chose that name of all the possibilities was because of the (object’s) acronym,” said Stern, named one of the top 100 influential people of the year in 2016 by TIME magazine.

Stern said some of the challenges NASA faced when sending a spacecraft to Ultima Thule included searching for what they considered a very small target, traveling to a hazardous environment and dealing with low lighting levels.

David Goldstein, an aerospace and engineering mechanics professor, said he hopes the seminar will inspire students going into the field to explore adventures beyond Earth.


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“When I was growing up … a lot of us were inspired by science fiction like ‘Star Trek,’ and now we’re actually flying out beyond the edges of the planetary system,” Goldstein said. “That should provide inspiration for our current students and maybe even faculty.”

The seminar took place in a room at the Aerospace Engineering Building and was packed with students of all ages. Aerospace engineering freshman Noah French said he has always been interested in space exploration, and Stern’s seminar consolidated his love for the field and his motivation to work in aerospace engineering.

“I’ve attended quite a few of these mission overviews by various NASA members, and this was incredible,” French said. “I remember seeing the first … pictures of Ultima Thule. It’s just absolutely incredible that we can learn so much about something so far away. (Stern) has been an inspiration of mine for a while. I think that the imaging exploration of Ultima Thule is a great first step, but like he said, there’s so much more out there to look at.”