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NASA's Pluto probe will detect another mysterious object



(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) – The crew of spacecraft, which brought us close-ups of Pluto, will ring in the new year, exploring an even more distant and mysterious world.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will fly past a skinny ice object named Ultima Thule shortly after the midnight strike.

At a distance of one billion miles from Pluto and an amazing 4 billion miles from Earth (1.6 billion kilometers and 6.4 billion kilometers), Ultima Thule will become the most distant world ever studied by humanity. That's what makes this goal of freezing so tempting; it is a preserved relic dating back to the origin of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Not a single spacecraft visited anything so primitive.

“What could be more exciting than this?” Said project scientist Hal Weaver at Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.

Lead scientist Alan Stern of the Southwestern Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's Eve to be more risky and more complex than the meeting with Pluto: the spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flight is closer and the distance is longer.

New Horizons

NASA launched the spacecraft in 2006; it's about the size of a baby grand piano. He flew past Pluto in 2015, giving the first close-up views of the dwarf planet. With an extremely successful overflight behind them, mission planners won a sequel from NASA and set their sights on a destination deep in the Kuiper Belt. No matter how far away he is, Pluto is barely in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called Twilight Zone, extending beyond Neptune. Ultima Thule is located in the heart of the Twilight Zone.

Ultima Thule

This Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Officially known as the 2014 MU69, he was nicknamed Ultima Thule by online voting. In classical and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place outside the known world. When the New Horizons first saw the rocky ice ball in August, it was just a point. Good close-up photos should be available the day after the flight.

Are we already there?

New Horizons will make their closest approach in the first hours of January 1 – 12:33 EST. The spacecraft will be close to 2,200 miles (3,500 km) from Ultima Thule, his seven scientific instruments will operate at full capacity. The coast must be clean: scientists have yet to find rings or moons around it that could hit a spaceship. New Horizons rush through space at 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 miles per hour), and even something as insignificant as rice grain can destroy it. “There is some danger and some uncertainty,” said Stern at an autumn meeting of astronomers. It will take about 10 hours to get confirmation that the spacecraft has completed and survived.

Maybe twins

Scientists suggest that Ultima Thule could be two objects rotating closely relative to each other. If you play alone, then most likely it’s not more than 20 miles (32 km). Imagine a baked potato. “Cucumber, whatever. Choose your favorite vegetable, ”said astronomer Cary Lisse from Johns Hopkins. It may even be two bodies connected by a neck. If the twins, each of them can be from 9 to 12 miles in diameter (from 15 to 20 kilometers).

Misson Mapping

Scientists will map the Ultima Thule in all possible ways. They expect impact craters, perhaps also holes and dips, but its surface can also be smooth. As for color, Ultima Thule should be darker than coal burned with eons of cosmic rays, with a reddish tinge. Nevertheless, nothing is certain, including its orbit, so large that in order to circle about the Sun nearly 300 years of our Earth. Scientists say they know enough about orbit to intercept it.

Flybys comparison

The new horizons will be much closer to Ultima Thule than to Pluto: 2220 miles versus 7,770 miles (3,500 km versus 12,500 km). At the same time, Ultima Thule is 100 times smaller than Pluto, and therefore more difficult to track, which makes it all the more difficult. Each flight controller at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, took four and a half hours to get a message from New Horizons in Pluto. Compare this to more than six hours in Ultima Thule.

What's next

New Horizons will take almost two years to transfer all their data about Ultima Thule. A flight to an even more distant world could begin in the 2020s if NASA approves another extension of the mission and the spacecraft remains healthy. At the very least, “New Horizons” with a nuclear installation will continue to observe objects from afar, as they penetrate deeper into the Kuiper belt. There are countless objects awaiting research.

To contact us at editors@time.com.


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