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New Horizons NASA spacewalk to meet New Year with distant world – Spaceflight Now


The concept of the artist for the New Horizon spacecraft that approaches the Kuiper Belt Object. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI

Three years and a billion miles past Pluto, the NASA probe for New Horizons is on the threshold of at least one pioneering, once-in-a-lifetime cross-section: the New Year's Day of a small body known as the 2014 MU69, unofficially called Ultima Thule – "out of the famous world" – at NASA's naming contest.

Like Pluto, Ultima Tule (pronounced LLL-LLI) is a deviant man on the far Kuiper Belt, a huge imperial area outside the orbit of Neptune inhabited by unspoken dwarf planets and a frozen residue left by the birth of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago .

Slightly more than the low point of light and even the Hubble Space Telescope, Ultima Thule will be the farthest object ever explored, a record that is likely to stand for decades to come, if not longer.

If everything goes well, the new horizons will race at the target at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour – nearly nine miles per second – at 12:33 pm New Year's Day, which will take about 2,200 miles from the still unseen surface of Ultima Tule.

Four hours later, the spacecraft will turn to its antenna on Earth to confirm a successful meeting. Hours later, the first high-priority photos and other data will begin to return to the inner solar system.

"Throughout the team, people are ready, they are in the game, we can not wait to go to explore," said Alan Stern, chief researcher at New Horizons. "It's been three and a half years (from Pluto's boat), we've worked so hard, people are ready to see that payout and see what we can learn about the birth of our solar system."

At Ultima Thule distance of 4.1 billion miles from the Earth, there will be radio signals, traveling 186,000 miles per second, six hours seven minutes and 58 seconds to cross the bay to scientists waiting in the Johns Hopkins University of Applied Physics near Baltimore. The first high resolution image is expected to be presented during the informative briefing on 2 January.

Despite the ongoing shutdown of the government, the public is expected to be able to follow along with the satellite television channel NASA. But in any case, the Applied Physics Laboratory, which builds and manages the new NASA horizons, plans to publish images and other data on the New Horizons website and the YouTube channel of the laboratory.

Only a few images and other high priority data are expected before New Horizons are moving behind the sun looking from Earth on January 4, temporarily interrupting communications. But even when the data is disseminated, it will take about 20 months to bring all the wealth of the Earth.

This is due to the vast distances involved, the weak signal from the 30th New Horizon transmitter and other NASA requirements that encompass Deep Space Network antennas that are used to communicate with space shuttles across the Solar System.

For scientists who want to study untouched remnants of the original rock from rocky remnants that merge to form a solar system, long waiting will be worth it.

"Everything we previously visited was flooded at some point," Stern said in an interview earlier this month. "Asteroids orbiting close to the sun, the comets … are born cold, but we just visited the comets when they descend to the orbit of the Earth when they are warm." Heat, heat causes chemical reactions to unfold, you can drive surface processes, etc., that create evolution. "

Ultima Tule, he said, "is completely unmarked by any of these things." It is classified as "cold classic", that is, the body of the Kuiper Belt with an almost circular orbit that is only slightly tilted on the plane of the solar system planets. Another large population of Kuiper belt bodies, composed of material originating closer to the Sun, was pushed by gravitational interactions in the distant past.

But not cool classics and Ultima Tule.

"He was born four miles from the sun, he has always been there, the temperature is barely above absolute zero," said Stern. "I do not believe that there is any subject we once visited, which kept this cold whole of its existence. So this is really a time capsule, it's a scientific value."

The new horizons will fly more than two times closer to Ultima Thule than during the flight of Pluto, Stern said, "so the images will be much more detailed."

"We will discover how this is being built, how evolved it is, from what is created, if there is an atmosphere, if there is a moon, if there are rings, we will take its temperature, we" will measure its radar reflexivity, we will discover if it is surrounded by cloud of dust that remains from the formation, "he said.

"All this and much more, because we will not only make pictures," he added. "We map its surface, map it in color, and map it with stereo so that we have topography everywhere. We will not only determine its composition, but we will show it from place to place to see if it is everywhere the same or if it is composed of smaller building blocks ".

The meeting has five main objectives: to characterize the geology, morphology and topology of Ultima Tule; to indicate their surface color and composition; to determine its structure; to search for satellites and rings; and look for any coma, or atmosphere.

"Ultima Thule can be very cratered, very obstructed, or may even be smooth from ancient currents and ancient activity," said Kerry Lisse, a research associate at the New Horizons Research Team. "We do not know, we simply will not know until we get there in January. I'm waiting to be surprised."

Launched almost 13 years ago in January 2006, New Horizons flew next to Jupiter in February 2007, using the giant planet in order to test its instruments and, more importantly, to use its gravity to throw the spacecraft to a fast trajectory Pluto.

Despite this, it ranged 100 times faster than an airplane during its journey, it still took eight more years to reach its destination in July 2015, flying past at a distance of 7,800 miles to capture the first photos closely and the wealth of data about the most famous planet from the dwarf Solar System.

This global mosaic of Pluto was created from images of the New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI

While meeting with Pluto was the primary goal of the spacecraft, mission managers knew they would leave over fuel and that its nuclear weapons supply would keep the operation functioning during the investigation in the course of the 2020s. Well before Fluton's flight, the team requested observation of the time of the Hubble Space Telescope to look for possible targets of the past through Pluto that could be close enough to the New Horizons trajectory to allow another flight.

Hubble discovered Ultima Thule in pictures captured on June 26, It was cataloged as 2014 MU69 and given the small number of Planet number 485968. The analysis of its orbit showed that New Horizons could reach it with a correction maneuver along the Pluto route.

After the meeting with Pluto was completed, NASA managers approved the expansion of the mission. A carefully planned missile launch was carried out, adapting the new horizon course to set up an upcoming meeting with Ultima Thule.

The new horizons did not notice their quarry until August 15 this year, at a distance of more than 100 million miles. It was a barely visible point of light, and would remain a little more than a brighter point of light until Monday, the day before the flight.

Nevertheless, scientists have at least some idea of ​​what to expect when New Horizons comes there. Based on the observations of the occult in which Ultima Thule passed away to a known star as seen from Earth, researchers believe that the target is an elongated body measuring about 17 miles across. It can be composed of two bodies in close orbit or two lobes that are physically connected, the so-called. "contact binary".

The researchers know that Ultima Thule receives only about 0.05 percent of the sun's light that the Earth makes and knows it is reddish. But they still do not know the exact dimensions, whether there are rings, moons or traces of the atmosphere.

"Indeed, we have no idea what to expect," Stern told planetary scientists during a conference in October. "We discovered it only in 2014 with the Hubble Space Telescope that works at the very edge of its fantastic abilities. We managed to learn enough about our orbit so we can meet and direct it." But there is very little else we know. "

Whatever they learn, it will happen very, very quickly. The small size of Ultima Thule means that the New Horizons cameras will not start to settle until the day before the meeting.

On Sunday, for example, the best photos will have a resolution of approximately 6.2 miles for an image element or pixel, and Ultima Thule will measure two to three pixels across the country. On New Year's Eve, the resolution will improve to 3.4 miles per pixel, and the body will measure from five to six pixels.

But by the New Year's Eve, the resolution will improve by 1,000 feet per pixel, and the day after, 500 meters for the Ultima Thule pixel that spans 215 pixels.

"Although we travel approximately at the same speed as we spend Ultima passing Pluto, Pluto is the size of a continent like North America," said Stern. "And so, when we spent 10 weeks from Pluto, we could already solve his disc like the Hubble Space Telescope, and we could see more and more details every week.

"But Ultima 10 weeks out is just a dot in the distance, and it will remain as a point in the distance to literally the day before the flight when we begin to solve it. From the day after the flight, we will have high resolution images, we hope that bigger resolution of the best photos of Pluto. So, it will be fast. "

The new horizons are equipped with six basic instruments: a spectrometer for images called Alice, a multi-spectral camera with visible light called "Ralph", a long-term reconnaissance scout – LORRI – incorporating an 8-inch telescope, a solar wind particles detector, an energy spectrometer for dust particles and dust collectors.

In addition, its radio system includes a circular signal that allows a precise analysis of the changes caused when signals from the Earth pass through the atmosphere.

The data is stored on unnecessary solid state recorders with eight gigabytes of data and returns to Earth with an X-band transmitter using an antenna with a fixed antenna of 83 inches. The data transfer rate will be slightly better than 1,000 bits per second.

Stern said the meeting is a much more difficult challenge for New Horizons than Pluto.

"This is harder for many reasons. First of all, it's smaller and it's weaker and it's harder to follow, it's harder to go home," he said. "It's 100 times smaller, it's 10,000 times pallid." Secondly, every year, the supply of nuclear power supplies creates less energy. Therefore, now we need to carefully manage which instruments and aircraft we find ourselves, we have to run our power far more ".

This photo of Ultima Thule, or 2014 MU69, was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI

Thirteen years after the launch, the only radioisotope thermoelectric generator of the spaceship, or RTG, produces only about 190 watts of energy, approximately enough to stimulate three standard bulbs.

In addition, because the scientific team does not know what to expect, New Horizons will carefully search the area around Ultima Thule, looking for moons or other features, so "there will be many images of a blank sky simply because we are trying to cover the whole area in case we know the late moon ".

Four days after the flight, communication with the New Horizons will be suspended as the spacecraft moves behind the Sun, viewed from Earth. The scientific team gave priority to data playback to ensure that the high-resolution Ultima Thule image reaches Earth before the eclipse begins.

"This is much faster revealing than anything we did to" New Horizon "before," said Stern. "Basically, it's a night-time conversion from a point to a distance to a real world. And I think that the first week in January, when we get the first detailed images back, will be amazing!" "Not just scientifically." I think for people who follow the news only to see and think about what our race can do, what our species can do, it will be incredible. "

Asked if New Horizons could reach the third Kuiper Belt goal along the way, Stern said he wanted his team to stay focused on Ultima Thule in the near future. But after completing the meeting, "we will seek another flying goal. I can not promise anyone, you or NASA, that we will find (but) I can tell you: there's nothing my team wants more than getting a second. "

Editor's Note: Part of this story was originally written for the Astronomy Magazine now and used here with permission.

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