Four billion kilometers from Earth, the New Horizons probe approaches the recently so beautiful images of Pluto, the farthest object humanity ever approaches: Ultima Thule, a mysterious rock in the Kuiper Belt. The historic rendezvous will take place tomorrow morning.
This is a nearly 30-year encounter, counting back to the dawn of the mission in 1989, but since the launch about 13 years ago – the timing and type of it was calculated that the probe received this opportunity after completing their main mission.
New Horizons arrived in Pluto in the summer of 2015, making thousands of photos and readings in its fleeting passage, which scientists still spur on. It has taught us many things about the distant dwarf planet, but when he experienced the extraordinary farewell mood of Pluto's atmosphere, the team was already thinking about his next destination.
Given the extreme speed and speed of the ship In the incredibly distant environment for the first mission, the options for the object under investigation were limited – if you consider the billions of objects floating in the Kuiper belt " limited ".
In fact, during a search carried out, the next target was selected in collaboration with the Hubble Space Telescope Team in 2014. Ground-based exploration was not accurate enough, and the New Horizons had to convince Hubble operators, basically two weeks to devote to satellite time in the short term. After initial rejection and "some high-stakes maneuvers in the back room," as senior investigator Alan Stern described in his book about the mission, the team made this possible and Hubble's data identified several potential targets.
2014 MU69 is a rock of unknown (but probably strange) shape about 20 miles wide and lying in the belt about a billion miles from Pluto. But soon it would be known under a different name.
"Ultima Thule," Stern told me in an interview on the stage of Disrupt SF in September. "This is an age-old building block of planets like Pluto, created 4 billion years ago; It was outside in this freezer, almost all the time below zero. It is a time capsule. "
At that time, he and the team had just received a visual confirmation of the target, even though it was just a sparkle in the distance. Immediately after our conversation, he started to fly-around simulations with the team.
"I'm so excited," he told me. "This will be the farthest exploration of all the worlds in the history of space flight, but in the history of human exploration. I do not think anyone will outbid that. "
The Voyager are the most man-made objects, of course, but they've been flying through the empty space for decades. New Horizons encounters strange objects in an asteroid belt. Good luck if you put together such a mission in less than a few decades.
In the time I wrote this post, New Horizons has risen from almost exactly 600,000 kilometers from Ultima Thule to under 538,000 (and to date) that you know my speed) – so will it will be there soon. About 10 hours outside, so very early in the morning eastern time on New Year's Day.
But even then, New Horizons actually hits the object – we'll only know when the signal is sent at speed 12 hours later, the light arrives here on Earth. Pluto is far!
The first data return confirms the telemetry and the fundamental success of the flyby. It will also send pictures back as soon as possible, and although it's possible we'll have fantastic pictures of the object by the afternoon, it's very much dependent on how things happen during the encounter. By the next day at the latest we will see some; For this purpose, media meetings are scheduled for 2 and 3 January.
Once these images flow, they may be even better than Pluto's. If all goes well, photos will be taken at a resolution of 35 meters per pixel, more than twice as good as Pluto's 70-80 meters / px. Note that these will appear later, after some basic acknowledgments confirm that the fly by was as planned and the team was better able to sort the incoming raw data.
"You should know that these range-of-sight observations are risky," Stern wrote in a post on the mission page: "We need to know exactly where Ultima and New Horizons are when they are at over 32,000 miles per hour Darkness of the Kuiper belt pass by each other … But reward comes with risk, and we'd rather try not to get it, and we'll do that.
NASA's public relations and other staff are still affected by the closure of the Confederation, but the New Horizons team will cover the signal acquisition and initial data live anyway; Follow the mission on Twitter or check in to NASA's live streaming at 7:00 am Pacific tomorrow morning. The schedule and many links can be found here.