Physics Instructor Helps NASA Study the Outskirts of the Solar System

High Point University physics instructor Jeff Regester and other scientists assisted NASA with stellar occultation observations in preparation for the New Horizons spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto in 2015 and Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) on Jan. 1. Regester (back row, second from the right) and other members of the occultation teams attended a special event at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland during the encounter on New Year’s Day. Photo courtesy of Ben Regester.

HIGH POINT, N.C., Jan. 4, 2019 – High Point University physics instructor Jeff Regester rang in the New Year celebrating a mission he’s been a part of for more than a dozen years.

On Jan. 1, NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons made history as it completed the first flyby of an object in the Kuiper Belt in the outstretches of the solar system. Regester was among the large group of scientists gathered at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland during the encounter.

“It was special for me to share the experience of the flyby with my family and for them to be able to meet many of the people with whom I’ve worked over the years,” said Regester.

“The last several days at APL were a celebration mixed with nervous anticipation. The team was confident that New Horizons was healthy, but the margin of error was very slim and there was the possibility of undetected collision hazards,” Regester explained. “Even a small pebble hitting the spacecraft at 36,000 miles per hour could kill the probe. So, the cheering that erupted at the post-flyby acquisition of signal on Tuesday morning was unbridled elation.”

Regester has assisted NASA with stellar occultation observations for New Horizons since 2006, when he made observations in preparation for the spacecraft’s 2015 flyby of Pluto. Since that time, the spacecraft has kept traveling farther away from Earth and Regester has continued to make observations, having traveled on expeditions to South Africa, Tasmania, the Marshall Islands, Reunion Island and New Mexico.

In August 2018, Regester traveled to Senegal to gather data that would help NASA plan this New Year’s flyby of Ultima Thule, a space object formally known as 2014 MU69. He and other scientists measured the size, shape, reflectivity and position of the object by observing it pass in front of a distant star. By pinpointing the exact length of time the star’s light was blocked, they calculated these figures and collected information about possible moons, rings or debris that could be collision hazards for New Horizons.

As the spacecraft made its closest approach to Ultima Thule, Regester reflected on the significance of the moment.

“Science is about expanding the boundaries of human knowledge, and with New Horizons we are literally exploring the boundaries of our solar system,” he said. “The people who built, launched and operate New Horizons are a dedicated and hardworking team. It has been a privilege to contribute.”

Regester explains that the data collected during the flyby of such a distant space object – about 4 billion miles away – will lead to a greater understanding of how the planets were formed.

“Ultima Thule is thought to be representative of the building blocks from which the planets formed,” he said. “Comets and asteroids are also leftovers from this time, but these have been considerably altered over the 4.5 billion-year history of the solar system. Being on a circular orbit in the outskirts of the solar system, Ultima Thule is thought to be pristine.”

HPU students will have the chance to become involved in similar research by participating in a new NASA mission called Lucy, which will launch in 2021.

“This new probe will visit six different asteroids, called Trojans, that orbit the sun near Jupiter,” said Regester. “We will be conducting occultation observations that will be crucial for the targeting of the spacecraft flybys. HPU students will be involved in the collection and analysis of these observations.”

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