Frédéric Pelletier is guiding the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto
31 December, 2018, 20:24
The 12-member New Horizons hazard watch crew has used the vessel's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, telescope camera to search for unsafe objects near Ultima Thule. One billion miles past Pluto, Ultima Thule will be the farthest object visited by a probe from Earth when New Horizons makes its closest approach on January 1 at 12:33 am ET.
Visiting it might allow scientists to better understand how the solar system we call home came to be.
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"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.
If New Horizons sounds familiar, it's because this is the spacecraft that conducted a historic flyby of Pluto in 2015, sending back unprecedented images of the dwarf planet and revealing new details about Pluto and its moons.
The Kuiper Belt extends from around 4.5 billion kilometres from the Sun (Neptune) to 7.5 billion kilometres from the Sun.
"The Voyagers and Pioneers flew through the Kuiper Belt at a time when we didn't know this region existed", Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. It was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth. If NASA offers updates on the New Horizon's mission that day, they will be shown in the ViewSpace Theater. Good close-up pictures should be available the day after the flyby.
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As it stands, New Horizons will flyby Ultima Thule from a distance of 3,500 kilometers ( about 2,200 miles) - its optimal path.
"There's a lot of future exploration ahead for New Horizons". "There's some danger and some suspense", Stern said at a fall meeting of astronomers. "We don't know much about its size and shape", Dr Stern said. It could even be two bodies connected by a neck.
The object itself is only about 30 kilometers wide.
Not a lot is known about Ultima Thule. They anticipate impact craters, possibly also pits and sinkholes, but its surface also could prove to be smooth.
That reddish tint of Ultima Thule? Nothing is certain, though, including its orbit, so big that it takes nearly 300 of our Earth years to circle the sun.
Ultima Thule will be getting more prominent within the sights of New Horizons as LORRI will fly by Ultima at more than 32,000mph.
"It's very hard, we don't have much information about (Ultima Thule)", Pelletier said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. In past, New Horizons has already bewildered scientists by the photos of Pluto. Compare that with more than six hours at Ultima Thule. It takes 6 hours and 8 minutes for a signal to reach Earth from New Horizons.
The mission will create a number of additional firsts, as this will be the most distant flyby we've attempted. If everything goes according to plan, we'll have plenty of New Year's presents awaiting us in 2019 as we get our first ever close look at a Kuiper Belt object. There are countless objects out there, waiting to be explored. The AP is exclusively responsible for all content.
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