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NASA'S NEW HORIZONS: Excitement before the flyby of Ultima Thule



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Media Caption Alan Stern: "It's pure science and pure exploration"

History is written on Tuesday when NASA's New Horizons probe sweeps past the icy world known as icy world Ultima Thule ,

The flyby, located some 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth, will set a new record for the most distant exploration of an object in the solar system by a spacecraft.

New Horizons will collect a wound of images and other data over a period of just a few hours to the closest approach.

This is the time for 05:33 GMT.

At this moment, the probe is about 3,500 km from Ultima's surface and moves at 1

4 km / s.

When the observations are completed, the robotic vehicle will then be completed contact the Earth to generate a report and downshift the gigabytes of information stored in its memory.

Mission scientists gathered at a Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory control center in Laurel, Maryland, are excited about what's in store.

"It's electric, the people in the whole team are ready, they're ready We can not wait to go exploring," says New Horizons lead investigator Alan Stern.

The probe is famous for making 2015 the first visit of the dwarf planet Pluto, pushing 1.5 billion kilometers deeper into space.

Image copyright
NASA / JHU-APL / SWRI

Caption

A blob in the viewfinder: Ultima of New Horizons on December 24

Virtually nothing is known about this next destination for New Horizons.

Telescope measurements suggest a diameter of 20 to 30 km, though scientists admit that they could actually be two separate units that move very close together and may even touch each other. The next days will show it.

Ultima is in the so-called Kuiper belt – the band of distant, frozen material that orbits far from the sun and the eight great planets. There are probably hundreds of thousands of Kuiper members, such as Ultima, and their cold state is certainly indicative of the genesis of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

"About one day we will all turn on our instruments." Kelsi Singer. "We take black and white pictures, we take color pictures, and we take compositional information … It's just such a new object, because we've never been to an object like this, it's hard to predict, but I'm ready to be surprised what we find. "

Why is New Horizons visiting Ultima Thule?

Nasa wanted to explore something outside of Pluto, and this object was accessible. Remarkably, it was discovered only four years ago by the Hubble telescope.

Originally cataloged as (486958) in 2014 MU69, after a public consultation, it received the catchier nickname Ultima Thule (Pronounced: Tool-ee).

It is a Latin phrase that means something like "a place outside the known world".

Like many other objects in the Kuiper Belt, it is likely to contain much ice, dust, and possibly some of the larger stone fragments that came together at the beginning of the solar system.

The theory suggests such bodies will take on an elongated or limp form. Consider potatoes or peanuts.

Remote observations indicate that the surface is very dark and has some red appearance. This darkness (it only reflects about 10% of the light falling on its surface) is the result of the "combustion" through the aeons of high-energy radiation – cosmic rays and X-rays.

New horizons will explore Ultimas form, rotation, composition and environment.

Scientists want to know how these distant worlds were assembled. One idea is that they came from the mass of many pebble-sized grains.

Caption

At this point, scientists can only speculate on what Ultima looks like

What can we expect from the flyby?

Do not blink, you might miss it. Unlike the encounter with Pluto in July 2015, images to be admired will not always be more dissolving. Ultima will stay in the viewfinder until the last few hours of the flyby.

However, the much smaller distance between the probe and the Ultima (3,500 km versus 12,500 km on the dwarf planet) means finer details in the surface will eventually be observed. Features with a diameter of only 33 m should be recognizable if the alignment of the cameras is correct.

Because New Horizons needs to be rotated to align the instruments, the antenna can not be locked on the ground while data is being collected.

Controller Therefore, I have to wait until the New Year's Day until the probe telephones a status update "home phone" and links some selected pictures down.

The "Hey, I'm healthy and I have a treasure trove of data The message should be picked up by Nasa's network of big radio sets at 15:28 GMT.

Image copyright
NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI

Caption

The detail in the highest resolution images should be better than new horizons reached at Pluto

What a great challenge is this flyby?

In some ways, this event is more difficult than Pluto's Pass.

The subject in the viewfinder is almost a hundred times smaller.

New Horizons will come closer than Pluto, which is good for image details; However, this means that the probe could return images from empty space when the pointer is empty.

And that really is a major concern. Since Ultima was discovered only four years ago, its position and movement in the sky are much more uncertain than the coordinates for Pluto.

Each image captured on the approach was used to refine the navigation and timing models critical to the company's control over New Horizons during the flyby.

And all this happens at a distance of 6.62 billion km (4.11 billion miles) from Earth.

With this separation, radio signals need six hours and eight minutes to get home.

In addition, the data rates are icy – about 1,000 bits per second.

It will be Tuesday before the first of a few selected images is connected to a downlink and it will be September 2020 until all data of the flyby of New Horizons is subtracted.

The BBC's Sky At Night feature broadcasts a special BBC Four episode at 22:30 GMT on Sunday, January 13th. Moderator Chris Lintott will discuss the event and discuss some of the new insights that will come from meeting the New Horizons team.


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