Roane State professor Ted Stryk has key role in historic NASA mission

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Roane State Community College
Roane State Professor

A Roane State professor had a front-row seat and a major role when NASA's New Horizon spacecraft flew by a small object 20-30 miles across and billions of miles away from Earth, at the edge of the solar system, as 2018 turned to 2019.

The New Year's flyby of the icy Ultima Thule may answer questions about the origin of the solar system, said Ted Stryk, who teaches philosophy and English at Roane State and is an expert at analyzing images of planets and other objects in space.

He said Ultima Thule is thought to have been essentially undisturbed since the solar system was formed eons ago. It is a billion miles beyond Pluto.

Stryk spent New Year's Eve and overnight into New Year's Day with scientists and other experts in the Applied Physics Lab of Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, MD, when the flyby by the nuclear-powered spacecraft – triangular and about the size of a grand piano – occurred at 12:33 a.m. EST Tuesday. The flyby lasted a couple of hours, but scientists in the lab expect to be analyzing images from it for years to come.

New Horizons passed within some 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule during its voyage through what’s called the Kuiper Belt, a vast region filled with objects ranging from dwarf planets to frozen fragments dating back to the birth of the solar system.

Stryk has been an amateur astronomer since he was 10 and has developed ways to extract the most amount of data from transmitted images. NASA learned of his skills, and he became involved in the New Horizons project during its flyby of Pluto in July 2015, when he was also present at the prestigious Johns Hopkins lab. Surprising facts about Pluto were discovered during that historic event, including that its atmosphere is blue and that it has nitrogen glaciers, including one that is the largest glacier of any kind in the solar system.

The associate professor at Roane State was again asked by NASA to participate in analyzing images sent from the Ultima Thule flyby because of his proven expertise in image processing techniques.

“We had a lot more time to get ready for Pluto than we did this object; we’re farther out with a lot less light, and it’s a smaller target and we haven’t known about it (as long),” he told the Knoxville News Sentinel on Tuesday. “So, in a lot of ways, this was a lot harder than the last one.”

Stryk helped in the preparation for the Ultima Thule flyby, and now in assessing data from it. 

He was among 200 researchers who received certificates of achievement from NASA in January 2017 for helping learn more about Pluto. He and some 700 other scientists attended the Division for Planetary Science’s week-long meeting at the Knoxville Convention Center in late October. The group, devoted to solar system research, is a component of the American Astronomical Society.