Published: Mon, December 31, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

New Horizons Hurtles Towards History To Ring In New Year

New Horizons Hurtles Towards History To Ring In New Year

NASA's unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on its historic New Year's flyby target, the most distant world ever studied, a frozen relic of the solar system some 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away.

Later on New Years Day NASA will broadcast the signal acquisition from New Horizons, confirming that it gathered the data it was instructed to and building up some serious hype for the eventual reveal of the first images of the distant object. Having long passed this distant planet, New Horizons has ventured into the Kuiper Belt looking for its next target.

Well, in the months since that updated the probe has been speeding along at over 30,000 miles per hour and, as luck would have it, it'll reach its current destination on New Year's Day. Like Pluto, it sits in the remote Kuiper Belt, the vast, icy, realm which is believed to contain many dwarf planets and other frozen detritus from the creation of the solar system.

Ultima Thule (ultima thoo-lee) - or 2014 MU69 as it is officially known - was discovered in 2014.

Already there is reason to believe something unusual lies just around the corner.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is about to fly past and send back data about a planetary object whose existence was not even known when it was launched in 2006. 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.

After a "health status check" on the spacecraft, more images will start to appear January 2 and in the first week of the new year, which will tell whether Ultima Thule is sporting any rings, satellites or an atmosphere.

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The New Horizons mission was extended to observe Kuiper Belt objects after its Pluto flyby, with more than two dozen Kuiper Belt objects on the list. Those is circular orbits like Ultima Thule have remained there throughout the solar system's 4.5 billion year history in temperatures close to absolute zero.

Alan Stern, Principal Investigator, New Horizons, speaking at media briefing December 28, 2018. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey. Even comets, which can form farther out than Ultima Thule, are warmed by repeated passes by the Sun and may have "significantly evolved from their primordial state", said Stern. "I love going to places (that are) unexplored - we're on the edge of the solar system".

The spacecraft's closest approach to this primitive space rock comes January 1 at 12:33 a.m. ET (0533 GMT). Compensating for that somewhat is that the dim sunlight in the Kuiper Belt left it past the "snow line" for a variety of gasses, meaning those gasses froze out to form particles.

"What could be more exciting than that?" said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.

"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.

"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.

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