New Horizons, the spacecraft that gave the first glimpse of distant Pluto, is about to shed light on another world, a small ice body 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth.
On New Year's Day at 12:33 pm Eastern Time, the spacecraft will fly to MU69 2014, receiving the unofficial name of Ultima Thule, an object 30 kilometers wide, which is part of the Kuiper belt. The region is a disk of ice objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.
It will be one of the most remote regions that a spacecraft has ever visited.
"We are on the doorstep of Ultima," said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons of the Southwestern Research Institute, a non-profit organization based in Texas. “We have never seen a single Kuiper belt object close by. We have no idea what their geology is like, how they are developed, how they were built, even what they are made of. ”
The spacecraft flew past Pluto, which was once considered our ninth planet, and is now considered a dwarf planet and part of the Kuiper belt in July 2015. Stern strongly opposes the decision to reclassify Pluto.
Revealing your secrets
When the "New Horizons" flew past Pluto – a much larger world than Ultima Tule, with a diameter of 2380 km – he discovered something that previously, planetarium scientists could only theorize.
Some of the findings included: Pluto was geologically active in the recent past; it has a denser atmosphere than expected (and blue); and it is home to moving nitrogen glaciers and floating ice mountains.
When New Horizons flies past the Ultima Thule at a speed of 14 km / s On January 1, it will be only 3,500 kilometers above the surface, providing images with much higher resolution than even those taken from Pluto.
Stern hopes for new surprises.
“We will look for rings. We will search [moons]"We will see if there is an atmosphere in it," said Stern. – So, a lot depends on the composition, geology and how it was built. how [did] these building blocks of the planets were made 4 billion years ago. This is the most well-preserved example of the era of the formation of planets, where anyone has ever been. "
The only other object was Pluto, but, as Stern noted, it underwent a geological evolution, therefore it was not preserved at all.
“Ultima is our first and – for now – the only chance to truly get a temporary capsule of the era of the formation of planets,” he said.
Reaching a celestial body at a distance of more than six billion kilometers and only half the size of Fort McMurray is not an easy task.
“Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, so it’s 10,000 times weaker,” said Stern. “This means that it’s much harder to navigate, track and track.”
Selecting Ultim Thule from several potential candidates, the Hubble Space Telescope helped scientists track the object so that they could start the engines of the New Horizon and change its trajectory. Now that he is closer, they can track it with the integrated camera.
But to track this was not the only task: since the spacecraft is so far away, there is less light to keep the instruments warm, so they are under a lot of pressure. In addition, it is much farther from Earth.
“Communication time increased from four and a half hours to six hours one way. This is a 12-hour round-trip flight, ”said Stern. "We play chess, where each turn takes 12 hours, using a remote control with something [6.5 kilometres away] and no backup. "
Stern is thrilled at the prospect of finding another goal to which they can send New Horizons after her visit to Ultima Thule.
“The mission was an incredible experience and a resounding success,” said Stern.
The public is invited to participate in the mission. by sending a message to Ultima Thule.