NASA mission plans New Year’s flyby of object 4 billion miles away

The distances between objects in our solar system

The distances between objects in our solar system

On Christmas Day, NASA's Alan Stern, the New Horizons Principal Investigator, announced that the New Horizons probe is preparing to encounter Ultima Thule - a somewhat mysterious body found in a cloud of asteroids, comets and dwarf planets that is most commonly known as the Kuiper Belt. The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

New Horizons is expected to officially fly by Ultima at 12:33 a.m. on January 1. It is most notable for being the first human-made object to ever visit Pluto in the summer of 2015.

As mentioned, the 6.5 billion mile distance means that signals from New Horizons take about six hours to reach Earth.

The Kuiper Belt lies in the so-called "third zone" of our solar system, beyond the terrestrial planets (inner zone) and gas giants (middle zone). "However, it takes nearly six hours each way or about 12 hours and 15 minutes round trip to communicate with the spacecraft". If everything goes according to plan, we'll have plenty of New Year's presents awaiting us in 2019 as we get our first ever close look at a Kuiper Belt object. The mission was launched in 2006 and took a 9½-year journey through space before reaching Pluto. Plus the spacecraft will be flying over three times closer than NASA came to Pluto obtaining much higher spectroscopic resolution and much sharper images than at Pluto. Its official designation is 2014 MU69.

"The Ultima Thule flyby is going to be fast, it's going to be challenging and it's going to yield new knowledge", wrote Stern.

Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth.

In the best case scenario, New Horizons could capture images at about 115 feet per pixel, nearly twice the resolution of Pluto images. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement". In the icy, empty space, Ultima Thule slowly orbits around the sun and it takes 296 years to complete one revolution. Researchers hope to have the first close-up images of Ultima Thule as early as the afternoon of 1 January. Ultima Thule might help scientists to study the formation history of our solar system. "New Horizons is on the hunt to understand these objects, and we invite everyone to ring in the next year with the excitement of exploring the unknown".

"At 32,000 miles an hour, if we hit something as small as a rice pellet, it would destroy the spacecraft - that would be the equivalent of hitting a Mack truck on the highway", Stern said. In 2017, scientists determined that it isn't spherical, but more elongated. Four billion miles from Earth, it will be the farthest object explored in history.

The objects in the Kuiper Belt are extremely cold - a mere 35 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero. It was never perturbed or moved, and it formed in an area where ice is as strong and hard as rock, so it never melted or formed a core.

Visitors will be able to catch the reactions and live simulations of the flyby on the New Horizons mission website. Compensating for that somewhat is that the dim sunlight in the Kuiper Belt left it past the "snow line" for a variety of gasses, meaning those gasses froze out to form particles.

So what can we expect? JHUAPL has taken over mission briefings (like today's webcast) and will provide live updates via the JHUAPL YouTube page for flyby events on Monday and Tuesday (Dec. 31 and January 1).

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