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Home / Science / NASA's Pluto probe inspects another mysterious object

NASA's Pluto probe inspects another mysterious object



(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) – The spacecraft team that brought us Pluto close-ups will ring in the New Year exploring an even more distant and mysterious world, icy object, called Ultima Thule shortly after midnight.

A billion miles beyond Pluto and a staggering 4 billion miles from Earth (1.6 billion kilometers and 6.4 billion kilometers), Ultima Thule will be the farthest world ever explored by humanity. This makes this frozen food destination so enticing. It is a preserved relic dating back 4.5 billion years ago to the origin of our solar system. No spaceship has visited something original.

"What could be more exciting than that?" Said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.

Leading scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's Conference to be more risky and difficult than the encounter with Pluto: the spaceship is older, the target is smaller, the fly-by is closer, and The Distance from us is bigger.

New Horizons

NASA launched the spacecraft in 2006; it's about the size of a baby grand piano. She flew past Pluto in 201

5 and provided the first close-up of the dwarf planet. After the hugely successful flyby, the mission planners had won an expansion of NASA and a target deep in the Kuiper belt. As far as it goes, Pluto is hardly in the Kuiper belt, the so-called Twilight Zone, which extends beyond Neptune. Ultima Thule is located in the heart of the Twilight Zone.

Ultima Thule

This Kuiper belt object was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope. Officially known as the 2014 MU69, it received the nickname Ultima Thule in an online poll. In classical and medieval literature, Thule was the farthest northernmost place outside the known world. When New Horizons first discovered the rocky ice ball in August, it was only one point. Close-ups should be available the day after the flyby.

Are we there yet?

New Horizons will come closest in the wee hours of January 1st – 12:33 pm EST. The spacecraft will zoom in on Ultima Thule within 3,500 kilometers, and its seven scientific instruments will be in full swing. The coast should be clear: scientists still need to find any rings or moons that could attack the spacecraft. New Horizons races through space at 50,700 km / h, and even tiny things like a grain of rice could destroy it. "There is some danger and tension," Stern said at an astronomers' autumn meeting. It will take about 10 hours to confirm that the spacecraft has completed the encounter and survived.

Possibly Gemini

Scientists speculate that Ultima Thule may be two objects that closely orbit each other. If it is a solo, it is probably no more than 32 kilometers long. Imagine a baked potato. "Cucumber, whatever. Choose your favorite vegetable, "said Astronomer Carey Lisse of Johns Hopkins. It could even be two bodies connected by a neck. If twins, everyone could have a diameter of 15 to 20 km.

Mapping Misson

Scientists will map Ultima Thule in every possible way. Expect impact craters, possibly also pits and sinkholes, but also the surface could be smooth. In terms of color, Ultima Thule should be darker than charcoal burned by eons of cosmic rays with a reddish hue. However, nothing is certain, including its orbit, which is so large that it takes nearly 300 Earth years to orbit around the Sun. Scientists say they know enough about orbit to intercept it.

Comparing Flybys

New horizons will be much closer to Ultima Thule than Pluto: 2,220 miles vs. 7,770 miles (3,500 kilometers vs. 12,500 kilometers). At the same time, Ultima Thule is 100 times smaller than Pluto and therefore harder to find, which makes everything more difficult. It took 4 ½ hours for air traffic controllers at John Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, to receive a message from or to New Horizons in Pluto. Compare that to more than six hours on Ultima Thule.

What's Next

It will take almost two years for New Horizons to return all data to Ultima Thule. A flyby of an even farther world could be imminent in the 2020s if NASA approves another mission extension and the spacecraft remains healthy. At least, the nuclear-fueled New Horizons will continue to observe objects from afar as they penetrate deeper into the Kuiper Belt. There are countless objects waiting to be explored.

Contact us at editors@time.com.


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