NASA’s New Horizons to fly by Ultima Thule on New Year’s day

NASA’s New Horizons to fly by Ultima Thule on New Year’s day

Ultima Thule is a enigmatic trans-Neptunian object found five billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt region. Yet on New Year's Day, it will meet another object on the edge of the Solar System - a rock nicknamed Ultima Thule, located 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, the Verge reported.

The spacecraft, which launched in 2006, captured stunning images of Pluto when it flew by the dwarf planet in 2015. Travelling beyond Pluto wasn't the primary mission of the New Horizons spacecraft, so over the past 3 ½ years, the NASA team has been able to program and change the course of the spacecraft in order to make this possible. It will be the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft.

New Horizons travels through deep space at 30,000 miles per hour and covers almost a million miles a day, which makes the interception and timing of photos of a space object a wee bit trickier than timing New Year's Eve ball drop.

Already there is reason to believe something odd lies just around the corner. And even though there are reasonable explanations for this, having to deal with a mystery so early on does nothing but to entice researchers even further.

"I'm excited to see the surface features of this small world".

"We've never been to anything like this that's been kept in such a deep freeze so long", Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, told The Verge. At the very least, the nuclear-powered New Horizons will continue to observe objects from afar, as it pushes deeper into the Kuiper Belt. Set for New Year's 2019, New Horizons' exploration of Ultima will be the farthest space probe flyby in history.

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The cosmic object, known as Ultima Thule, is about the span of the USA capital, Washington, and orbits in obscurity and frigid Kuiper Belt around a billion miles past the diminutive person planet, Pluto. And it's happening amid a partial government shutdown that initially threw a curveball into how the New Horizons team will share the flyby with the public.

The discovery of the Kuiper Belt in the mid-1990s made Pluto - the largest body in the belt - an attractive target, and many, including Stern, credit the discovery with getting the mission approved. Ultima Thule is even more cryptic than Pluto. "And because it's a very complex enterprise to do one of these flybys, there are literally hundreds of variables that all have to choreograph perfectly", Stern said. "There's also the possibility that it will be a binary asteroid - two objects touching each other or in close formation".

Data collected by New Horizons will disclose Ultima Thule's shape, composition, temperature and whether it is, in fact two objects.

"The Ultima Thule flyby is going to be fast, it's going to be challenging, and it's going to yield new knowledge", Stern wrote on the New Horizons blog. Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, and Pluto is about the size of the United States.

The data that will be sent back will take around six hours to reach Earth and Stern says that the images will be ready for release by January 2nd.

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