This week may mark the end of the year, but also marks a fresh start for the New Horizons spacecraft. Best known for their incredible 2015 Pluto photos, the space probe begins a new adventure: the flyby of an object called Ultima Thule that goes far beyond Pluto. The object lurks at the edge of our solar system in the Kuiper Belt. The flyby is scheduled for January 1, 2019, although the spaceship will study the Kuiper belt at least until 2021. Ultima Thule is even more mysterious than Pluto. On the one hand, it is much smaller: With an estimated 30 kilometers in diameter, Ultima Thule is little more than a glorified asteroid. In the cool, empty space behind Pluto, Ultima Thule lays his slow orbit around our sun and swings once every 296 years. Scientists have theorized that Ultima Thule might look like a close-up, though most expect surprises; After all, there has never been a flyby of such a distant object in the history of a space program. Given that scientists have never studied a Kuiper Belt object at close range, Ultima Thule can provide many new insights into the history of how our Solar System came into existence.
New Horizons has already begun to take photos of its destination, which has already brought an interesting discovery. According to scientists, it lacks a "light curve", which means periodic brightness variations.
"It's really a mystery," said New Horizons lead researcher Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in a statement. "I call the first riddle of this Ultima ̵
Scientists have a few theories, but nothing will be confirmed until the January 1 flyby.
"It is possible that Ultima's rotation rod is aimed directly at or near the probe," said Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, in a statement.
Another explanation might be that Ultima is surrounded by a cloud of dust.
"Another explanation," says Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute, is that Ultima could be surrounded by a cloud of dust that obscures the light curve, just as a comet's coma often overpowers light reflected from its central core.
A scientist has suggested that the object may be surrounded by several moons.
"If every moon has its own light curve, then together you could create a jumbled overlay of light curves that cause New Horizons to do so It looks like Ultima has a small light curve, "said Anne Verbiscer of University of Virginia, Assistant to a New Horizons Assistance Project.
New Horizons will be high-resolution images that will be available on Earth a few days later The details that New Horizons announces expect exciting results: When the spacecraft took pictures of Pluto, it initially puzzled the scientists.
"Pluto shows us a variety of landforms and a complexity of processes that can compete with anything what we saw in the solar system, "Stern said of the photos." If an artist puts this pluto before ours I would probably have called it an exaggeration – but that's just it. "
The photos showed an unexpected complexity of the planet.
"The surface of Pluto is as complex as that of Mars," said Jeff Moore, head of New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "The randomly confused Mountains could be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the informally designated Sputnik Planum region. "
The near-field data from New Horizons observations from Ultima Thule will do so on the first day of the year 2019 arrive on earth.