A NASA spaceship races toward a historic New Year's flyby of the remotest planetary object ever studied, a frozen relic of the early solar system called the Ultima Thule.
Four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away, New Horizons, the unmanned spacecraft, is set to zoom in at a distance of just 3,500 kilometers from Ultima Thule on January 1 at 12:33 (0533 GMT).
This is more than three times closer than New Horizonte came to Pluto when he was torn apart by the dwarf planet in 2015.
So, what is this weird object named after a mythical far-north island in medieval literature with its own rock hymn played by Queen guitarist Brian May?
"This is truly the most primitive object ever encountered by a spacecraft," said Hal Weaver, a project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
The relatively small size of the scientists is relatively small.
However, they believe that it is about 1
Ultima Thule is also in an icy room, suggesting that she is well preserved.
"It really is a relic of the formation of the solar system," said Weaver.
"Attic" of the Solar System
Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) lies in the Kuiper belt, a huge cosmic disk left over from the days of the first planetary formation.
Astronomers sometimes call it the "attic" of the solar system.
The scientists did not know that the Kuiper belt existed in the 1990s.
The Kuiper Belt begins about three billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers) beyond the Sun, past Neptune's orbit furthest from the Sun.
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" Billions of comets, millions of objects like Ultima, called planetsimals, are building blocks that make up planets and a handful of them are dwarf planets the size of continents like Pluto, "said Alan Stern, chief researcher on New Horizons.
" It's important to us in planetary science because this region of the solar system is so far from the sun removed, preserving the original conditions four and a half billion years ago, "Stern added 19659002]" So as we fly past Ultima, we'll be able to see how things were in the beginning. "
Fast, High-Speed Encounters
The New Horizons spacecraft accelerates through space at 51,000 km / h, traveling nearly a million miles a day.
Bei At this rate, the spacecraft could be destroyed instantly if it hit a piece the size of a rice pellet.
"We do not want that to happen," Stern said.
If New Horizon survives this flyby, it will do so while raising hundreds of images of Ultima Thule in the hope of revealing its form and geology for the first time.
New Horizons sent breathtaking images of Pluto – including a Never The Shape of the Heart was seen on its surface – 2015. [This] "This time around, we will try to capture Ultima three times as high as we did for Pluto had, "said Stern.
But the flyby requires extremely precise navigation. Much more precise than ever. We could get it, and we could not, "added Stern.
Answers to come?
Ultima Thule was first discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The researchers found in 2017 that Ultima Thule is not spherical, but may have an elongated shape. It can even be two objects.
The projected, pulsating light that scientists expect to see from a rotating cosmic object is not projected and raises puzzling questions.
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Could it be surrounded by cosmic dust? Wrapped in many little moons? Is she aligned with her pole aimed at the approaching spaceship?
NASA hopes the flyby will reveal the answers.
The first pictures are expected on the evening of the 1st of January, the release is scheduled for the 2nd of January.
More high resolution images should follow.
Although no live images are possible at this distance, NASA plans a broadcast During the flyby online, with an animated video and music by Queen guitarist Brian May, who has studied Astrophysics, and a musical tribute to the event publishes.
"I was inspired by the idea that this is the best The hand of man has ever reached," May said.
. Stern hopes that this will not be the end of New Horizons, which hit the market in 2006 and is powered by plutonium.
"We hope to chase one more." KPO (Kuiper Belt Object), which makes an even more remote flyby in the 2020s, "said Stern.