Published: Tue, January 01, 2019
Culture | By Jeremy Gray

New Horizons Spacecraft Closing In On Ultima Thule

New Horizons Spacecraft Closing In On Ultima Thule

The New Horizons is scheduled to flyby the object at 12:33 a.m. EST on January 1. Scientists will not have confirmation of its successful arrival until the probe communicates its whereabouts through NASA's Deep Space Network at 10:28am Eastern, about 10 hours later. Due to the tremendous distances involved (about 4 billion miles!), all transmissions from New Horizons will take just over 6 hours to arrive on Earth, even traveling at the speed of light.

On Monday, planetary scientists released a fuzzy image of Ultima Thule, snapped the day prior by the New Horizons exploration spacecraft from some 1.2 million miles away. The spacecraft will not be in contact with Earth during close approach but is programmed to send a signal home on the morning of January 1 to indicate its health and whether it recorded all the expected data. Instead, team members and their guests gathered nearby for back-to-back countdowns at midnight and again 33 minutes later.

This marks the second historic flyby conducted by New Horizons, but it's definitely the one NASA and its principle researchers seem the most excited for. Its New Horizons vessel will fly past the most distant solar system object ever explored.

Fans can watch Ultima Thule flyby events live on NASATV and John Hopkins APL.

Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft aimed to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule.

Dr. Spencer, who is with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., confirmed that the latest image reveals that Ultima Thule is an elongated body, about 30 kilometres long, although it's not yet clear if it is a single object or two or more in contact.

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Among them were Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, parliamentary leaders and other government officials.

To the ancient Roman and Greeks, Ultima Thule was originally the most northerly part of the Earth, but the name was used to refer to anywhere which was outside the known world.

The flyby comes three-and-a-half years after New Horizons swung past Pluto and beamed back the first ever close-up images of the dwarf planet.

For that reason, Stern said he and his colleagues are "on pins and needles to see how this turns out".

Based on these two factors, this object could be a pristine piece of the early solar system, which formed at its current location, and thus was not tossed around by the gravity of the other planets (looking at YOU, Neptune), and has possibly gone completely (or almost completely) untouched for over 4.5 billion years. The brightness of the stars was subtracted from the final image using a separate photo from September 2017, before the object itself could be detected.

'Because of where it was formed and the fact that Ultima is not large enough to have a geologic engine like Pluto and larger planets, we expect that Ultima is the most well-preserved sample of a planetary building block ever explored.

"At closest approach we are going to try to image Ultima at three times the resolution we had for Pluto", said Stern during an interview on NASA TV last week. It was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope and added to New Horizons' itinerary.

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