The Boulder-born New Horizons mission now clearly has its next target beyond Pluto in the crosshairs.
NASA reports that a remote camera on the spacecraft, which has reached the historic flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015, has been drawing its first images of the Kuiper Belt object, originally known to the astronomers as the 2014 MU69 the less bulky name Ultima Thule. This nickname is defined by the Planetary Mechanics blog as "Beyond the Known World".
Alan Stern, vice president of the Southwest Research Institute's Space Division in Boulder and principal investigator of the New Horizon Mission, posted the news on his Facebook page with the short commentary "Tally Ho, Ultima Thule!"
The images taken by Long Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) revealed, according to NASA, a small faint object that is still more than 1
Originally, these efforts were not made until mid-September.
"Our team has been working hard to find out if Ultima was discovered by LORRI at such a great distance, and the result is a definite yes," Stern said in a statement. "We're now targeting Ultima from much farther out than ever before, we're on Ultima's doorstep, and expecting an amazing exploration."
In an interview, Stern explained on Thursday why scientists wanted to take a look at their target (19659002) "Initially, our calculations showed that we could not recognize Ultima until September, but we did extra calculations that showed it may have been discovered in August, and since earlier detection is to our advantage, "We decided to give it a try. And we did it, "Stern said.
" If we had noticed that we were a little bit absent, the previous knowledge would have saved fuel as far as the correction was concerned. We realized that we were on course. That's the best possible result. "
No hazards – so far
The Ultima Thule images are the farthest from the Sun images, NASA reported and broke the previous record of Voyager 1" Pale Blue "Dot" image of the Earth recorded in 1990. New Hor Izons, which hit the market on January 19, 2006, also set the record for Earth's hitherto most distant image in December 2017.
The Kuiper Belt is a region of the Solar System beyond the Neptune orbit that is thought to contain countless comets. Asteroids and other small bodies that are mainly ice and rock. Ultima Thule is about 4 billion miles from Earth and about 1 billion miles further from Earth than Pluto.
"Ultima is considered to be a building block for small planets like Pluto, studying its composition, geology and evolution over time. We hope to understand how the most prevalent class of planets in the solar system, the dwarf planets, originated," said Stern ,
Scientists see the first discovery of Ultima as remarkable because they will be better over the next four months, able to refine the course of New Horizons at 22:33 in the direction of its nearest approach MST on December 31st. Mission members believe that Ultima is exactly where they predicted. Data from the Hubble Space Telescope shows that they have understood their orbit well.
Faculty and students recruited by the University of Colorado from Southwest Research Institute were sent to destinations in South Africa and Argentina in the summer of 2017 to study a short series of coverings, or the passage of Ultima in front of background stars to see what that is could reveal about its size and shape, and whether there are dangers in its vicinity.
"It was both successful and productive, and we also had another position campaign to look for dangers from the Senegalese country this summer," said Stern. "So far we have found no dangers."
If dangers are discovered this fall as the spacecraft approaches, Stern said his closest approach point can be adjusted outward to avoid it.
A Rubber ducky "
Fran Bagenal, a researcher at the CU Laboratory of Atmospheric Space Physics, was a Stern partner who urged the Pluto mission in 1989.
It's cool, "she said when she saw the new pictures." It means we arrive there. We are still far away. But it means that we have a goal and it will get bigger and bigger in the next few months. "
However, she added," Bear in mind, this is a very small object, "estimated to be no more than 20
"And we do not know if it's round, or is it peanut-shaped, or is it like the Comet 67P, which was studied by the spacecraft Rosetta of the European Space Agency?
Stern said New Horizons is on its way to pass about 3,500 kilometers or about 2,000 miles across the surface of Ultima. We expect to be much better and more detailed. "
The Ultima flyby will be the very first exploration of a small object in the Kuiper Belt and the furthest exploration of a planet's body in history, staggering the record that New Horizons itself set at Pluto by approximately 1 billion miles in July 2015. 19659002] It is not yet known if Ult Ima is what is referred to as contact binary, meaning a system whose two components are so close that they touch each other, a circulating binary system or even small moons.
Not so long ago, Stern said, "We'll find out. "