New Horizons meets Ultima Thule tonight

Tanya Cunningham
January 1, 2019

Ultima Thule was discovered in June 2014 by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which was trying to find new targets for New Horizons in the Kuiper Belt, the third region of the solar system.

"This is just raw exploration", said Alan Stern, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and the principal investigator for the mission.

"The Kuiper Belt is a scientific wonderland", Stern said.

Ultima Thule is located 4 billion miles from the Sun, and around 1 billion miles from Pluto, the furthest object ever explored by any spacecraft.

New Horizons is on track to reach its closest point to Ultima Thule - 2,200 miles - in a flyby at a speed of about 31,500 mph at 12:33 a.m. EST on New Year's Day.

Scientists define the Kuiper Belts as a very big zone of icy bodies and mysterious small objects orbiting beyond Neptune.

The name Ultima Thule was chosen through a nickname campaign hosted by the New Horizons team.

After a "health status check" on the spacecraft, more images will start to appear January 2 and in the first week of the new year, which will tell whether Ultima Thule is sporting any rings, satellites or an atmosphere.

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule," indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Real-time video of the actual fly-by was impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive.

Hal Weaver, a project scientist on the mission and a professor at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University explained what we already know about Ultima Thule. Data from watching this KBO pass in front of known background stars suggests that this is the likely shape of Ultima Thule. The team is expecting the images that will come down in the coming days to be far more intricate, with the most-detailed image being distributed on Thursday (Jan. 3).

'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'.

A NASA spacecraft opens the new year at the most distant world ever explored, a billion miles beyond Pluto.

It may be that Ultima Thule is similar to comets that follow elliptical paths taking them close to the sun, only Ultima was never perturbed and flung inward by a gravitational encounter with Neptune or Uranus. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.

If New Horizons sounds familiar, it's because this is the spacecraft that conducted a historic flyby of Pluto in 2015, sending back unprecedented images of the dwarf planet and revealing new details about Pluto and its moons.

"There's a lot of chatter in the science team room", Spencer said.

As most of America's East Coast counts down toward midnight tonight, ushering in a shiny new year, a group of NASA scientists and their attendant press will instead be counting down to a more spectacular event: the most distant flyby of a planetary object in history. "We will find out".

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