The team of spacecraft that brought us close to Pluto would ring in the new year by exploring an even more distant and mysterious world.
Space NASA's New Horizons will burn the last iceberg called Ultima Thule (TOO-lee) right after midnight.
A billion miles away from Pluto and an incredible 4 billion miles from the Earth (1.6 billion kilometers and 6.4 billion kilometers), Ultima Thule will be the farthest world ever explored by humanity. That's what makes this deep-freeze so tempting; it is a preserved relic that dates back to the beginning of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. No spaceship has visited anything so primitive.
"What can be more exciting than that?" says the scientist of the Hal H. Waver Project at Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.
Leading scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's meeting to be more risky and more difficult than a rendezvous with Pluto: the spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flight is closer and the distance from us is greater.
NASA opened the spacecraft in 2006; it's about the size of the grand piano of the baby. She flew by Pluto in 2015, providing the first close-up view of the dwarf planet. With a wildly successful fleet behind them, mission planners won a NASA extension and set their landmarks to a destination deep inside the Kuiper Belt. As distant as it is, Pluto is hardly located in the Kuiperis belt, the so-called zone of twilight extending beyond Neptune. Ultima Tule is in the heart of Twilight.
This Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Formally known as 2014 MU69, it won the nickname Ultima Thule in online voting. In classical and medieval literature, Thule was the farthest northern place outside the famous world. When New Horizons first saw rocky ice in August, it was just a point. Good close pictures should be available one day after the flight.
Are we there?
The new horizons will make their closest approach to writing the classes from January 1st to 12:33 EST. The spacecraft will zoom in at some 3,500 kilometers from Ultima Thule, its seven scientific instruments will be destroyed. The shore should be clear: Scientists have yet to find any rings or moons around it that could push the spacecraft. New horizons penetrate the universe at a speed of 31,500 km / h, and even something small as a grain of rice can destroy it. "There is some danger and some uncertainty," Stern said at the fall of astronomical meetings. It will take about 10 hours to get confirmation that the spacecraft has finished – and survived – the meeting.
Maybe a twin
Scientists speculate that Ultima Thule can be two objects that move around us around us. If a solo act, it is likely to be at most 32 kilometers. Imagine a baked potato. "Cucumber, whatever. Choose your favorite veg," said Astonomer Kerry Lys from John Hopkins. It can be even two bodies connected to the neck. If twins, everyone can be in a diameter of 9 miles to 12 miles (15 kilometers to 20 kilometers).
Scientists will bring Ultima Thule in every possible way. They predict craters for impacts, possibly pits and holes, but its surface may also be smooth. As for the color, the Ultima Thule should be darker than the coal, burned by eons of cosmic rays, with reddish color. Nothing is certain, though, including its orbit, so large that it takes about 300 years on Earth to circle the sun. Scientists say they know enough about the orbit to intercept.
Comparison of flybys
The new horizons will be substantially closer to Ultima Thule than Pluto did: 2.220 miles versus 7.770 miles (3,500 kilometers versus 12,500 kilometers). At the same time, Ultima Thule is 100 times smaller than Pluto and is therefore more difficult to track, making it increasingly challenging. It takes 4½ hours in any way for flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, to get a message to or from Pluto's new horizons. Compare it with more than six hours in Ultima Tule.
It will take almost two years for New Horizons to return all data to Ultima Thule. Flight to an even more distant world could be on the offensive in the 2020s, if NASA approves another extension of the mission and the spacecraft remains healthy. At the very least, new nuclear-weapon horizons will continue to observe objects from afar, as it enters deep into the Kuiper belt. There are countless items outside, waiting to be examined.