NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to fly past tiny, icy world beyond Pluto

Brenda Watkins
January 1, 2019

Many have likely remained the same since the dawn of the solar system, making them essentially time capsules for astronomers.

After travelling 1 billion miles beyond Pluto into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will look for clues concerning the formation of the solar system and its planets. Whereas Pluto is roughly the size of the United States, Ultima could fit atop Washington, D.C. This means New Horizons has to get much closer to the little space rock to examine it, and the encounter will be over much more quickly.

Offering scientists the first up-close look at an ancient building block of planets, the flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.

The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the "third zone" in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12:33am Eastern. It takes Ultima Thule 298 years to orbit the sun. "Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away", said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern in a statement cited by

Its New Horizons probe sped past a odd object called Ultima Thule at about 5.30am, snapping pictures as it zoomed by at high speed.

A schedule of New Horizons Ultima Thule flyby events.

Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey. Now, it is heading towards the edge of the solar system and will shortly reach Ultima Thule, where it will complete a historic flyby.

Once the flyby happens and mission scientists understand more about just what Ultima Thule is, NASA will choose a formal name to submit to the International Astronomical Union. "Also by counting the number and impactors that have hit Ultima, we can learn about the number of small objects in the outer solar system".

"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver. "By tomorrow, we'll know how we did". Ultima Thule orbits the sun from the Kuiper Belt - a massive region of frozen rocky bodies beyond Neptune's orbit.

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After discovery by the Hubble Space Telescope, a series of ground observations were carried out to measure Ultima Thule during an occultation-as it passed in front of a background star and blocked out some of the starlight.

Scientists are already split on whether it's elongated or even two objects - but it might be even weirder than expected.

Ultima Thule (officially 2014 MU69) is believed to be a pristine remnant of the birth of the solar system. Hard water ice forms the bedrock on Pluto with softer ices on top, such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane. Based on these two factors, this object could be a pristine piece of the early solar system, which formed at its current location, and thus was not tossed around by the gravity of the other planets (looking at YOU, Neptune), and has possibly gone completely (or almost completely) untouched for over 4.5 billion years.

The flyby comes three-and-a-half years after New Horizons swung past Pluto and beamed back the first ever close-up images of the dwarf planet.

So what can we expect?

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flies by the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019 in this artist's illustration.

Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, the spacecraft aims to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of the surface of Ultima Thule.

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", Stern noted in an opinion piece in the New York Times. "The farthest exploration of worlds in history!" he wrote on Saturday.

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