Spacecraft heads for world beyond Pluto

Katie Ramirez
December 31, 2018

As per different scientific reports, Ultima Thule is about 19 miles in diameter! "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". Studying its properties could help scientists understand the earliest stages of our solar system. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is about to make the most distant space exploration ever when it intercepts an ancient object more than 4 billion miles from the Sun on New Year's day.

It flew past Pluto in 2015, providing the first close-up views of the dwarf planet. The spacecraft will flyby an object that is far away from Pluto.

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).

NASA selected the Kuiper Belt, a "twilight zone" stretching beyond the planet Neptune.

The success at Pluto and the spacecraft's continuing good health, plus the identification in 2014 of a KBO along its route, won approval for the extended mission that will reach its climax on Tuesday. Screengrab from NASA TV. A flyby of an even more distant world could be in the offing in the 2020s, if NASA approves another mission extension and the spacecraft remains healthy. The New Horizons team will have only one chance to do a flyby.

As it stands, New Horizons will flyby Ultima Thule from a distance of 3,500 kilometers ( about 2,200 miles) - its optimal path. Although the spacecraft is just four days away, Ultima Thule is only now getting to be close enough to fill one pixel of an image.

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The spacecraft entered "encounter mode" on December 26, and is "very healthy", added Stern.

Kelsi Singer, New Horizons co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute said, "We've never been to a type of object like this before". 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. Its official designation is 2014 MU69. It picked up the unusual moniker, which means "beyond the known world", following a NASA naming contest.

"The Voyagers didn't even look at the Kuiper Belt because they didn't know there was a Kuiper Belt to look at", Dr Stern said. Singer said it is hard to predict. "I expect the detailed flyby images coming soon to give us many more mysteries, but I did not expect this, and so soon". Bowman concurred. "It will amaze us just like Pluto did". "I don't have any idea" what to anticipate. The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system. Scientists are anxious to learn whatever they can about an object that has been so well preserved over eons. It is the farthest, however - 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

As you can see, anyone who is staying up for the big ball to drop and kick off the new year on the East Coast will only have to wait a little while to catch live coverage of the New Horizons spacecraft's close approach to Ultima Thule. First, however, it will send a simple signal to tell mission controllers that all is well. Eastern Standard Time on 1 January 2019. He expects it to continue operating until the late 2030s, pointing out that it is only halfway through the Kuiper Belt.

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