Nasa probe in landmark space exploration

Katie Ramirez
January 2, 2019

The New Horizons spacecraft accomplished its primary mission on July 14, 2015, when it performed the first close encounter of Pluto.

On Twitter, the New Horizons team announced that the spacecraft "is healthy and on track" for the flyby of Ultima Thule, which is set to take place just after midnight.

An artist's illustration shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto.

It is hoped the information taken from Ultima will provide clues as to the formation of the Solar System. The instruments on New Horizons will create geologic and compositional maps of Ultima Thule, as well as searching for any rings, debris, or even small satellites orbiting the object.

Seeing Ultima, then, is like witnessing our solar system origins, long before the first life even evolved on Earth.

The celebration occurred in the midst of a partial government shutdown, which closed much of NASA's public outreach for the Ultima Thule flyby.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is about to make history again, as it is now on course for an encounter with Ultima Thule, which will soon be the farthest explored object in our solar system! "The exploration at Ultima Thule is a fitting way to honor the brash exploration and boldness that was Apollo", Stern wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

At mission control in John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, the New Horizons team has been using the spacecraft's cameras to snap new pictures of Ultima Thule on approach.

'He asked if I could come up with a theme for Ultima Thule which could be played as the NH probe reached this new destination'.

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Ultima Thule - or 2014 MU69, as it is called in astronomical catalogs - is estimated at being somewhere around 30 km wide. At a speed of 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), New Horizons could easily be knocked out by a rice-sized particle.

The spaceship will be just 2,200 miles from the asteroid, which is impressive considering it was spotted from 4.03 billion kilometres away by the Kepler Telescope.

As revellers watched fireworks exploding in the night sky, billions of kilometres beyond the spectacle, NASA's New Horizons probe quietly notched up another incredible first - making its closest approach to the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we'll know how we did", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said during the news conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. The small body continues to orbit undisturbed on a more circular path than comets, never getting closer than 42 Astronomical Units, or 42 times the average distance between the Earth and the sun.

Still, the best colour close-ups won't be available until February. However, the real science can't begin until the probe delivers all the data it's gathered, and that could take months.

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on its 4 billion-mile journey toward the solar system's edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.

But New Horizons' performance so far suggests it is ready for the challenge, Stern said.

Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa. "We'll find out Tuesday".

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