Friday, 18 January, 2019

Pluto explorer ushering in new year at more distant world

Quebec's Pelletier leads 'farthest exploration of any planetary body in history' NASA Is About To Perform The Most Distant Planetary Flyby Ever
Theresa Hayes | 31 December, 2018, 10:11

Ultima Thule was originally discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope during a survey of the Kuiper belt, which is a ring of debris and objects of various sizes that orbit the Sun at distances far greater than even Neptune.

It flew past Pluto in 2015, providing the first close-up views of the dwarf planet.

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 cosmic object, known as Ultima Thule, is about the span of the United States capital, Washington, and orbits in obscurity and frigid Kuiper Belt around a billion miles past the diminutive person planet, Pluto.

"In effect, Ultima should be a valuable window into the early stages of planet formation and what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago".

Why explore the Kuiper Belt?

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.

You can also watch when we receive data from New Horizons on the Deep Space Network website. Screengrab from NASA TV. Now the spacecraft is set to make history again as it flies by an even more distant world. It takes a radio signal about 6 hours 7 minutes to make that trip.

"Because this is a flyby mission, we only have one chance to get it right", said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for New Horizons.

The full extent of our knowledge of Ultima Thule's surface is that it's about 30 kilometers across and not perfectly spherical, based on its occultation of a background star.

The spacecraft will take high-resolution images of the object and it will be available on Earth a few days later.

For now, though, the team is waiting to celebrate on New Year's Day.

After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects, but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.

The name Ultima Thule itself means "beyond the borders of the known world" so the expedition of New Horizon into space is most probably going to reveal stunning data as part of the most distant exploration till date.

The object was previously known as 2014 MU69. Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) is a nickname chosen by the mission team following a public naming contest. Singer said it is hard to predict.

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. "I don't have any idea" what to anticipate.

Generally speaking, KBOs are thought to be primarily icy bodies that formed at the same time as the solar system. This area is so far from the sun, temperatures are just 35 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero. Scientists are anxious to learn whatever they can about an object that has been so well preserved over eons. With thousands of instructions loaded into its onboard computers, it has begun its delicate dance, 1 billion miles past 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. Eastern Standard Time on 1 January 2019. When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot.

The Voyager spacecraft made their way above and below the Kuiper Belt in the 1990s, but were "blissfully unaware" of its existence. It will remain in the Belt until the end of the 2020s and he hopes to get permission to fly past another KBO in that decade.