NASA spaceship closes in on distant world

Pat Wise
January 2, 2019

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is set to go where no probe has ever gone before this New Year's Day, when it beams back data from a tiny world that sits more than six billion kilometers away at the edge of the solar system. The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

The New Horizons spacecraft blasted off January 19, 2006 for its trip to Pluto, and since 2015, has been moving deeper into space.

According to NASA, Ultima Thule (Too-ly) will be the most primitive object explored in our solar system, and therefore will also be a good indicator of what conditions were like in this distant part of the solar system as it began forming 4.5 billion years ago. It is 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto and an astounding 6.4 billion kilometres from 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). The mission was launched in 2006 and took a 9½-year journey through space before reaching Pluto. Due to their temperature they can not change internally and externally, keeping them frozen in time over billions of years.

New Horizons was always meant to travel to what scientists call a "third zone" of our solar system, named the Kuiper Belt.

The object was previously known as 2014 MU69.

What's next for New Horizons after Pluto and Ultima Thule? In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. A year before that historic encounter, astronomers discovered Ultima Thule, giving the mission team a tantalizing second target to visit.

In the best case scenario, New Horizons could capture images at about 115 feet per pixel, nearly twice the resolution of Pluto images.

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New Horizons Principal Investigator, Alan Stern stated that this is Ultima Thule's initial puzzle about the presence of such minute light curve. Even comets, which can form farther out than Ultima Thule, are warmed by repeated passes by the Sun and may have "significantly evolved from their primordial state", said Stern. Researchers hope to have the first close-up images of Ultima Thule as early as the afternoon of 1 January.

Kelsi Singer, Science Operations Manager, New Horizons speaking at media briefing December 28, 2018.

"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.

An artist's illustration of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft as it flies by Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto on January 1, 2019. In 2017, scientists determined that it isn't spherical, but more elongated.

The objects in the Kuiper Belt are extremely cold - a mere 35 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero. Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, and Pluto is about the size of the United States. 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. The spacecraft still had fuel and power and the science instruments were still working, so the mission was extended to allow it to observe an object further out in the Kuiper Belt. He expects it to continue operating until the late 2030s, pointing out that it is only halfway through the Kuiper Belt.

"We expect to have an image with nearly 10,000 pixels on Ultima ready for release on January 2", Dr Stern said.

The spacecraft has already started taking photos of its mark. And we can learn its composition. Stern writes that it's possible those images could be even higher-resolution than the 2015 Pluto flyby images, and those were wonderful.

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