After Pluto, New Horizons probe draws near to its next target: Ultima Thule


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Do not sleep on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

The history-making probe, which famously zoomed previous Pluto in July 2015, is closing in on its subsequent flyby goal, a frigid chunk of ice and rock about four billion miles (6.four billion kilometers) from Earth dubbed Ultima Thule. 

New Horizons is now simply 80 million miles (130 million km) from Ultima Thule, mission members stated Wednesday (Sept. 19). That is lower than the gap from Earth to the solar (about 93 million miles, or 150 million km). [Destination Pluto: NASA’s New Horizons Mission in Pictures] 

The spacecraft has already begun photographing Ultima Thule for navigation functions and stays on monitor to cruise inside a mere 2,200 miles (three,540 km) of Ultima within the wee hours of Jan. 1, 2019. The information New Horizons gathers throughout that encounter hshould shed appreciable gentle on the photo voltaic system’s early days, stated mission principal investigator Alan Stern.

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“Ultima Thule was shaped on the origin of our photo voltaic system, and it has been on this deep freeze ever since,” Stern, of the Southwest Analysis Institute in Boulder, Colorado, stated throughout a webcast occasion Wednesday.

“Going to it’s like making an archaeological dig into the historical past of our photo voltaic system,” he added. “We have by no means been to something like this.”

Ultima Thule was found in 2014 (and is formally referred to as 2014 MU69). The thing’s floor is reddish and darkish — about as reflective as potting soil, Stern stated. And Ultima Thule seems to be about 23 miles (37 km) huge.

However the object stays shrouded in thriller. Its composition and form are unknown, for instance, as is its exact orbit. Researchers do not know for positive if Ultima Thule has any moons or particles rings or even when it is a single object. Certainly, Ultima might effectively include a pair of close-orbiting our bodies, New Horizons workforce members have stated.

The upcoming flyby will clear up such questions. However pulling off the epic encounter will not be straightforward, Stern harassed Wednesday. 

Ultima Thule lies 1 billion miles (1.6 km) past Pluto and is way smaller than the dwarf planet. New Horizons is three years older now, with decrease energy ranges. And the probe will try to get a lot nearer to Ultima on Jan. 1 than it ever bought to Pluto. (The 2015 encounter had a close-approach distance of seven,800 miles, or 12,550 km.)

“Every thing about this flyby is more durable,” Stern stated. 

New Horizons can have one shot on the flyby, which can happen because the probe is zooming alongside at about 32,000 mph (51,500 km/h). Stern stated he thinks the workforce and the spacecraft are as much as the problem. However, as in the remainder of life, there aren’t any ensures, particularly given the boundary-pushing nature of this mission.

“It is actually an journey of exploration,” Stern stated.

The $720 million New Horizons mission launched in January 2006, tasked with lifting the veil on Pluto. The Ultima Thule encounter is the centerpiece of the probe’s prolonged mission, which additionally contains the research from afar of quite a lot of different objects within the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy our bodies past Neptune’s orbit.

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