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Nasa New Horizons: Ultima Thule Thrill

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Media headlineAlan Stern: "This is pure science and pure research"

The story will be made on Tuesday when the New Horizons probe from Nasa flies past the icy world known as Ultima Thule.

Flying at a distance of about 6.5 billion km (4 billion miles) from Earth, the span will set a new record for the most distant exploration of a solar system object by a spacecraft.

New Horizons will collect a variety of images and other data in just a few hours, which will lead to going beyond the nearest approach.

This is timed to 05:33 Moscow time.

At this point, the probe will be at a distance of about 3500 km from the Ultima surface and will move at a speed of 14 km / s.

When his observations are completed, the robotic spacecraft will turn to Earth to report this, and will begin to transfer gigabytes of information stored in its memory.

Mission scientists gathered at the Applied Physics Laboratory Control Center at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland, are anxious about what lies ahead for them.

“This is electric. People in the whole team are ready. They are in the game, and we can’t wait for the research to begin, ”says New Horizons principal investigator Professor Alan Stern.

The probe is known for the first time he visited the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015. To reach Ultima, he had to move 1.5 billion kilometers deeper into space.

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A drop in the viewfinder: Ultima, seen in the New Horizons December 24

However, almost nothing is known about this next target for New Horizons.

Telescopic measurements show that it is about 20-30 km across, although scientists admit that in fact it can be two separate objects moving very close to each other, perhaps even touching each other. The next couple of days will tell.

Ultima is located in the so-called Kuiper belt – a strip of far, frozen material that rotates away from the Sun and the eight major planets. There are probably hundreds of thousands of Kuiper members, such as Ultima, and their cold state will almost certainly help to understand the conditions of the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.

“One day we will include all of our tools,” explains mission scientist Dr. Kelsey Singer. “We will make black and white images; we will make color images. And we will take information about the composition … It's just such a new object, because we have never been in such an object before. It’s hard to predict, but I’m ready to be surprised at what we find. "

Why is New Horizons visiting Ultima Thule?

NASA wanted to explore something outside of Pluto, and this object was reachable.

It is noteworthy that it was discovered only four years ago by the Hubble telescope.

Originally cataloged as (486958) 2014 MU69, he was given the more catchy nickname Ultima Thule (pronounced: Tool-ee) after public consultation.

This is a Latin phrase that means something like "a place outside the known world."

Like many Kuiper Belt objects of this size, it will probably consist of a large amount of ice, dust, and possibly some larger fragments of rock that have come together at the dawn of the solar system.

The theory assumes that such bodies will have an elongated or lobed shape. Think potatoes or peanuts.

Remote telescopic observations showed that its surface is very dark, with a slight shade of red. This darkness (it reflects only about 10% of the light falling on its surface) is the result of the fact that it “burned” through eons by high-energy radiation — cosmic rays and X-rays.

New Horizons will explore Ultima's shape, rotation, composition, and environment.

Scientists want to know how these distant worlds were collected. One idea is that they grew out of a mass cluster of very many pebble-sized grains.

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At this stage, scientists can only guess what Ultima looks like.

What can we expect from a flight?

Don't blink, you can skip this. Unlike meeting with Pluto in July 2015, more and more images will not be on the way to admire them. Ultima will remain a drop in the viewfinder almost until the last hours of the flight.

However, the significantly reduced distance between the probe and Ultima (3,500 km compared to 12,500 km on the dwarf planet) means that ultimately smaller surface details will be observed. Traits up to 33 m wide should be distinguishable if cameras are pointed.

Since New Horizons has to be turned to direct its tools, it cannot keep the antenna locked on Earth while simultaneously collecting data.

Therefore, dispatchers must wait until a later New Year arrives in order for the probe to “call home” with the status update and begin transmitting descending images.

The message “hey, I'm healthy and I have a treasure trove of data” should be received by NASA's large radio network at 15:28 GMT.

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Detailing pictures with the highest resolution should be better than New Horizons, achieved in Pluto

How difficult is this flight?

In a sense, this event is more complicated than the passage of Pluto.

The object in the viewfinder is almost a hundred times smaller.

New horizons will be closer than in Pluto, which is good for image detail; but this means that if the pointer is turned off, the probe can send back images of empty space.

And this is really a serious problem. Since Ultima was discovered only four years ago, its position and movement in the sky is much more uncertain than the coordinates of Pluto.

Each image obtained during the landing approach was used to refine the navigation and synchronization models, which will be crucial for controlling new horizons during flight.

And, remember, all this is done at a distance of 6.62 billion km (4.11 billion miles) from Earth.

With this separation, radio signals take six hours and eight minutes to reach home.

Moreover, the data transfer rate is icy – about 1000 bits per second.

On Tuesday, it will be late until the first of several selected images has been transmitted, and it will be September 2020, until all the recent pieces of data from the span have been taken from New Horizons.

On Sunday, January 13, a special episode of the BBC Sky At Night program will be broadcast on BBC Four at 22:30 GMT. Presenter Chris Lintott will review the event and discuss some of the new sciences that will appear after meeting with the New Horizons team.

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