NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to a January 1 th Ultima Thule fly-by, a distant Kuiper Belt object 1.6 billion kilometers from Pluto.
The encounter will be the farthest planetary flyby of history. What New Horizons will see is a mystery, and Alan Stern, the mission's lead investigator, is prepared for confusion.
The rugged, piano-sized probe designed and built by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, has a milestone in exploration: it passed Pluto in July 2015. [NASA’s New Horizons Mission in Pictures] [NASA’s New Horizons Mission in Pictures] [1
Space.com recently met with Stern to talk about New Horizons and the upcoming record flyby of Ultima Thule, which scientists believe is about 37 km wide.
Space.com: What is the overall health of New Horizons near Ultima Thule?
Star: The spacecraft is essentially in perfect health. As for the engines, we divide them between the A and B sides of New Horizons. So we will not let them run until they break. Ultimately they are life-limited, like your tires. All scientific instruments are in good health. We are on course and can not ask for more at this time.
Space.com: What is the prospect of an extended mission after exploring this object on the Kuiper Belt?
Star: There may be another KBO flyby after this; we will see. For a five-year extended mission, we proposed leading us through 2021 to 50 astronomical units and studying the Kuiper Belt in various ways. [Note: One astronomical unit is the Earth-sun distance, about 93 million miles, or 150 million km.] We have to suggest for future extended missions. If science is good and the spacecraft stays healthy, I think we have an excellent chance. We are the only spaceship that can do that. Nobody else comes with a second mission. It really is a unique opportunity to do things that are not possible otherwise, and we still have a lot of propellant.
Alan Stern, at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, the lead investigator of New Horizons.
Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA
Space.com: The flyby of Pluto and now a KBO is a symbol for exploration and investigation of the unknown. It seems the mission is a metaphor for surprise, even confusion.
Star: Go back to the early 1960s until the 1970s. These first missions to Mars, to Venus, to Mercury, to Jupiter … they all provided the same experience we had. This spaceship struck everything known by the telescope and showed us on each planet a much more complex and differentiated situation as well as new types of physical phenomena. We were always surprised and surprised.
The Pluto flyby has shown that nature has inspired us again. It was so surprising that I told colleagues from the New Horizons science team, after looking at the datasets, that we were likely to get an "A" for exploration, but an "F" for scientific prediction skills. [Pluto’s Heart: A Cosmic Valentine in Photos]
Space.com: So, your forecast on what you'll find at Ultima Thule
Star: New Horizons flies with almost one A million miles a day on the object too. It is a distant point until the day before the flyby. The next day, we get high-resolution images and other data. It is looking for an atmosphere that may be there or not. We will also study the KBO for moons and rings, we will map it, determine the surface composition, measure the temperature and more. The data will flow after the spacecraft passed on January 1st.
These data are transmitted to Earth not only for weeks but also for one and a half years. It will be late summer 2020 before we have any records on site. So expect that this is the gift that keeps giving.
Nothing like this has ever happened before. There has never been a mission to this object. We are studying something so wild … something that was so far from the sun where it was not developed, because the temperatures are so low that we have no parallel.
Ultima Thule may be something different than we've ever seen
Leonard David is the author of the forthcoming book "Moon Rush: The New Space Race," published by National Geographic in May 2019 becomes. The longtime author of Space.com, David, has been reporting on space industry for more than five decades. Follow us @SpaceTotcom or Facebook. This version of the story was posted on Space.com.