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4th Annual Lecture Series

Victor Valley College Lecture Series logo

Taking Your Family to Ultima Thule - 1 Billion Miles Beyond Pluto

When: Friday, October 19, 2018 - starting at 7:00 p.m.
Where: Victor Valley College's Performing Arts Center
How Much: The Lecture is free and open to the public!

View the Calendar event here

Dr. Mark Showalter - photoDr. Mark Showalter
Planetary Scientist, SETI Institute
Member, NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft Science Team

 The STEM Division at Victor Valley College proudly announces Victor Valley College's 4th Annual Lecture Series.

Bio: Dr. Mark Showalter

What will humanity find one billion miles beyond Pluto?

Dr. Mark Showalter, a world-renowned planetary scientist at the SETI Institute, and discoverer of two of Pluto's moons, is also a member of NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft's science team.

Dr. Showalter and his team will be taking the people of Earth 1 billion miles beyond Pluto on New Year's Eve/Day when the New Horizon's spacecraft reaches a never-before-explored-region of our solar system.  This body has been named "Ultima Thule", which means "beyond the known world," a designation that hints at the scientific value of encountering a world that is the farthest of any humanity has ever visited, and finally seeing the nature of this world so far from Earth that it is unresolvable from this distance.  Ultima Thule is smaller than Pluto's moon Charon, but larger than comet P67 that the Europeans landed on during the Rosetta mission in 2015; hence, Ultima Thule is the missing body in our understanding of how our solar system formed.  It represents a relic and likely pristine class of celestial body, whose natures are unknown, and tells us about conditions during the beginning of the formation of our star's planetary system.  

Ultima Thule - artist's rendition
An artist's illustration of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flying by Ultima Thule (formally known as 2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019. Recent observations suggest that Ultima Thule may actually be two co-orbiting bodies.
Credit: Steve Gribben/JHUAPL/SwRI

"New Horizons Nearing Ultima Thule" article on SPACE.COM here

"New Horizons Sails Through 'Final Exam' Before Ultima Thule
Encounter" article
on SPACE.COM here

In 2015, Dr. Showalter began the now acclaimed VVC Lecture Series by taking students of our region and their families, as well as members of the public to Pluto!  Once the New Horizon’s spacecraft, for the first time in human history, greeted little Pluto in July of 2015, we learned it is an incomparable world with as much variety in geological processes that have both mystified and enlightened scientists, as any of the designated primary planets in our solar system.

Now, the time is fast approaching on New Year’s Day of 2019, for this unprecedented mission, New Horizons to take humanity to Ultima Thule, the first time we will have ever visited an object of its kind in the Kuiper Belt.  Related to the comets, but not thought to have formed in the same region as they, little Ultima Thule will be ironically, the largest, most distant, and most primitive body ever encountered by a spacecraft!

Ultima Thule and other worlds like it are thought to lie Ultima Thule event poster40 to 50 times further from the Sun than Earth.  They likely formed in place, and escaped gravitational disruption by the giant planets when the giant planets of our solar system migrated from the respective places of their own formation.  Thus, Ultima Thule and objects of its kind are the most distant representatives of the original disk and material from which all the planets formed!

On average, scientists expect Ultima Thule and other worlds like it (in what is known as the Kuiper Belt) to be smaller than a class of Kuiper Belt Objects that include the dwarf planets, such as Pluto. Those objects are believed to have formed closer to the Sun, and been scattered and emplaced in their orbits by the migration principally of Neptune after its formation.

In addition to being uniformly smaller on average than their counterparts (not having any much larger members of their kind) at least a third of these bodies like Ultima Thule, exist as binaries (in pairs). Therefore, these worlds have never been subjected to intense collisions that come with a scattering process.

This makes Ultima Thule a representative of this physically and dynamically distinct group (called Classically Cold Kuiper Belt Objects), and a pristine example of the original disk from which the planets were also born.

View a published paper by the New Horizons Science Team at Cornell
University Library at

What will Ultima Thule look like?  What will be its composition? What will be its shape, its structure?  Will it be an elongated world with moons, a ring, or will it be two such worlds in close orbit around one another or perhaps even stuck together, unimaginably bizarre in appearance, with a moon or moons orbiting both?  Or will it appear to be fragmented from a larger body?

We know that Ultima Thule is much smaller than Pluto, but ten times larger and a thousand times more massive than a typical comet.  It may show signs that tiny aggregates of materials came together to form it during the creation of our Solar System. 

About 30 days from now, the New Horizons team will begin searching for rings or moons of Ultima Thule, especially in regards to such objects as potentially hazardous for collisions with the spacecraft.

Two to three days before New Year’s Eve/Day, New Horizons will begin taking pictures of Ultima Thule where detail can be seen, for the first time in human history! 

Pluto, the largest Kuiper Belt Object is an active world, extensively studied and known because of the New Horizons mission.  Pluto’s moon Charon was also observed extensively by New Horizons, and Saturn’s little moon Phoebe has been observed by NASA missions Voyager and Cassini at Saturn.  Phoebe is thought to have also originated in the Kuiper Belt. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission brought us insights about Comet 67P, revealing of the primitive nature of a small Kuiper Belt Object.

Among all of these objects, emerges a missing gap between the aforementioned moons, and Comet 67P, in the size class of Ultima Thule.  Ultima Thule will be the first representative of its kind to ever to be closely encountered for study by humanity.  It will be the furthest robotically-visited world in the Solar System!  It will help us understand comets, the origin of small planets, the entire Solar System, the nebula that formed the Sun and planets, and the disks we find around newly forming stars that may become such objects as these, one day.

On October 19, 2018, Dr. Showalter will be here for members of the public and students of all ages throughout the region and their families, who will one day strive to reach for the stars in their chosen fields, quite possibly in good part, because of his efforts to be certain to share this event with each of them. Dr. Showalter will share his latest research results with the students, and prepare them for a front row seat at the end of the year, when humanity will know the nature and true appearance of what is beyond the known world. Ultima Thule will accomplish what humanity strives to know; it will tell us more about our origins and hence the future of exploration and our existence, from the edge of the Sun's realm.

It is thrilling to know that Dr. Showalter will allow students of our region to take their families to Ultima Thule a billion miles beyond the newly known world of beloved Pluto, on the evening of October 19, 2018 at the VVC Performing Arts Center, in this 4th of the VVC's acclaimed Lecture Series!  Coincidentally, Dr. Showalter began the lecture series 75 days before the New Horizon’s spacecraft had its closest approach to Pluto and is now returning 75 days before the spacecraft encounters Ultima Thule, at the 4th lecture in Victor Valley College’s prestigious Lecture Series! 

There is a seat waiting for you, to assure your place in the history of the exploration of Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day.  Don’t miss it! Bring your family to Ultima Thule on October 19, 2018 @7 pm at Victor Valley College’s Performing Arts Center! This event is free and open to the public and students and their families of our region. Arrive early!  Seating is limited.


Last Updated 10/29/19