New Horizons Will Make The Most Distant Flyby In The History

New Horizons has traveled more than 4 billion miles since launch from Cape Canaveral in January 2006

One billion miles past Pluto, Ultima Thule will be the farthest object visited by a probe from Earth when New Horizons makes its closest approach on January 1 at 12:33 am ET. The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of January 1 - 12:33 a.m. EST. The spacecraft, traveling at over 14 kilometers per second, will soar just 3,500 kilometers from the surface of an icy, rocky object nicknamed Ultima Thule perched in the outer reaches of the solar system. Well, in the months since that updated the probe has been speeding along at over 30,000 miles per hour and, as luck would have it, it'll reach its current destination on New Year's Day.

The discovery of the Kuiper Belt in the mid-1990s made Pluto - the largest body in the belt - an attractive target, and many, including Stern, credit the discovery with getting the mission approved.

Scientists are looking forward to their first up close glimpse at a Kuiper Belt object and already have some mysteries to unravel.

Ultima Thule will be getting more prominent within the sights of New Horizons as LORRI will fly by Ultima at more than 32,000mph. The goal of the survey was to find an object worthy of study by New Horizons, and scientists know very little about it. It took 4 1/2 hours, each way, for flight controllers at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, to get a message to or from New Horizons at Pluto. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. It's next mission was to fly past a rock officially called 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule. When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement". 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. Plus the spacecraft will be flying over three times closer than NASA came to Pluto obtaining much higher spectroscopic resolution and much sharper images than at Pluto.

The scientists believe that Ultima can provide clues about the formation of dwarf planets like Pluto and also help understand how the solar system was a billion years ago.

We can make some inferences based on what we know about the Kuiper Belt, though.

"We've never been to a type of object like this before", said Kelsi Singer, New Horizons co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.

A camera on board the New Horizons spacecraft is now zooming in on Ultima Thule, so scientists can get a better sense of its shape and configuration - whether it is one object or several. It was able to detect and focus on Ultima Thule only by using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, as the rock is too small and faint to visualize with telescopes available on Earth. In 2017, scientists determined that it isn't spherical, but more elongated. 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.

Based on its circular orbit, as opposed to the elliptical orbits of the planets, Ultima Thule formed 4 billion miles away in the middle of the Kuiper Belt.

At that distance temperatures are freezing - nearly absolute zero or -273 degrees C.



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