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Every January I think about the Roman god Janus, for whom the month is named. He is conventionally depicted with two faces, one facing the past, the other the future.

As a god of beginnings and endings, he was also a middleman serving as a representative of transitions and the passing of time as well as an indicator of physical places of passage, like doorways and gates. The past and future symbolism also carried through to other dualities such as war and peace, planting and harvesting, childhood and adulthood, and life and death. And one reference said Janus' abode was "at the limits of Earth, at the extremity of Heaven."

Whether by design or a coincidence of timing, at 12:33 a.m. (eastern) on Jan. 1, 2019, a spacecraft named New Horizons performed the farthest flyby and observation of a space object -- called Ultima Thule -- on what might be the edge of our solar system. Janus facing the future could surely see the possibilities for space travel and research that this outward stretch means.

But interestingly, Alan Stern, NASA's principal investigator, said, "It's a big deal because we're going 4 billion years into the past." He explained, "Nothing that we've ever explored in the entire history of space exploration has been kept in this kind of deep freeze the way Ultima has."

So essentially we have used incredibly complex technology created to function long enough into a future to find some of the answers of how our planets came into being in the far, far distant past. Perhaps Janus' face to the past is smiling, too, after receiving this deserved respect of the past's purpose.

Ultima Thule means, "beyond the borders of the known world." That is the nickname given the oddly shaped space object that New Horizons has been headed for since 2015, when it left Pluto's neighborhood just a billion miles away.

Amazingly, when New Horizons was launched Jan. 19, 2006, no one even knew Ultima Thule was out there. It took dogged scientists using the Hubble telescope to keep looking for anything past Pluto that might be another orbiting object to go visit. Then on June 26, 2014, something moved, and they saw it. This tiny piece of space material is only 19 miles long and 12 miles across at its widest point, and it takes 297 years to orbit the sun. That orbit does not make calculating easy. "That's why we're doing optical navigation measurements, continuously looking to make sure we know the point in space we want to target," said Alice Bowman, NASA's mission operations manager.

At first the object seemed shaped like a bowling pin or a peanut shell, but when the pictures came more into focus, its two joined sides actually resembled a snowman. However, for a Janus fan, this double-lumped rock can also symbolize one thing having two distinct and rotating viewpoints. One view is toward our known solar system; the other faces into the unknown extremities of deep space.

Paying more attention to humankind's accomplishments in space is long overdue. As we wrestle with each other down here on our beautiful blue marble, distractions cause us to miss out on the mind-blowing miracles happening in our space programs. This little machine, only the size of a grand piano, has zipped through space at 32,000 mph for 13 years and traveled 4 billion miles from Earth. After producing thousands of pictures and data about Pluto, its mission, as a bonus it took the challenge to fly deeper into the Kuiper Belt to find Ultima Thule. And, it will take 20 months to download all the information recorded about this new place, since radio signals take 6 hours, 7 minutes and 58 seconds to call home.

Something as small as a grain of sand could have destroyed New Horizons. It could have missed its targets. It could have broken down or disappeared. Instead it will keep going as long as it can, exploring the comets, asteroids, rocks, ice, dwarf planets and tiny moons whirling through space and sending back data to help us learn more about planetary formation in our galaxy.

We've gone into space to find our past, yet here on Earth, we have not realized that what goes around comes around. This sphere we're riding, this third rock from the sun, doesn't really need humans. If we're smart enough to go beyond the edges of the solar system, are we smart enough to understand Earth's limits so we can stay alive here at home?

Commentary on 01/08/2019

Print Headline: From here to eternity

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