Space Probe Nears Mysterious Object on Outskirts of Solar System
The New Horizons space probe will perform of a flyby of Ultima Thule, an object in the Kuiper Belt
Photo NASA Twitter
NASA’s space probe New Horizons is fast approaching Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever to be explored by an Earthly vessel.
“We’ve never in the history of spaceflight gone to a target that we’ve known less about,” Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission said.
Ultima Thule is an ancient object- a piece of rock left over from the beginning of the solar system that could reveal tantalizing information about our own solar system’s origins.
“We are ready to science the heck out of Ultima Thule,” Stern said.
The object is floating approximately 1.6 billion miles past Pluto – in the Kuiper Belt. That’s extraordinarily far away. To put that in perspective. New Horizons fulfilled its primary object of reaching Pluto back in 2015. Even flying faster than a bullet, that mission took over nine years.
Now, the world waits, as once again the probe, which is about the size of a grand piano, gets ready to snap photos.
The exact time of the flyby is 5:33 a.m. GMT, on New Years Day, NASA wrote on Twitter.
In less than 48 hours, New Horizons will make history! The team at @JHUAPL is preparing for the #NewYears flyby of #UltimaThule, the farthest object explored by a spacecraft ever – 4 billion miles from the Sun and ~1 billion miles from Pluto. pic.twitter.com/3EiB2bmOKy
— NASA New Horizons (@NASANewHorizons) December 30, 2018
The historic moment will be broadcasted with a 3-d simulation and legendary guitarist of the band Queen and astrophysics Brian May will accompany the video with a guitar anthem.
“To me, it epitomises the human spirit’s unceasing desire to understand the Universe we inhabit,” May said.
Ultima-Thule was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope. “Ultima Thule” is Latin for “ultimate North.” In classical and medieval literature, the phrase acquired the metaphorical meaning of any distant place located beyond the borders of the known world.
The New Horizons flyby will be performed at a speed of 14 kilometers per second and the probe will be about as close to the ancient object as New York is from Los Angeles.
But New Horizons has super precise telescopes on board, so should be able to get pictures of Ultima Thule that are about as good as any pictures taken of the Moon by powerful Earth-bound telescopes.
“It’s tricky imagery, made really fast in a critical time window,” Stern said. “If that works, we’ll have images that are more detailed than Pluto by quite a bit.”
Seven devices on board will record high-resolution images and collect data about the size and composition of the Ultima-Thule.
“We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed — we think,” Hal Weaver, the project scientist of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said, “We will find out.”
New Horizons, which was launched on Jan. 19, 2006 and was the first spacecraft to provide close-up views of Pluto on July 18, 2015.