NASA Is About To Perform The Most Distant Planetary Flyby Ever

Quebec's Pelletier leads 'farthest exploration of any planetary body in history'

Quebec's Pelletier leads 'farthest exploration of any planetary body in history'

Nearly four years after it's historic Pluto flyby, NASA's spacecraft, New Horizons, is hurtling toward the farthest object humans have ever explored for a New Year's Day flyby of a Kuiper Belt Object, known as Ultima Thule. The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

The spacecraft's closest approach to this primitive space rock comes January 1 at 12:33 a.m. ET (0533 GMT).

As mentioned, the 6.5 billion mile distance means that signals from New Horizons take about six hours to reach Earth. It's located in the Kuiper Belt, the outermost region of the solar system beyond Neptune.

If New Horizons sounds familiar, it's because this is the spacecraft that conducted a historic flyby of Pluto in 2015, sending back unprecedented images of the dwarf planet and revealing new details about Pluto and its moons. If everything goes according to plan, we'll have plenty of New Year's presents awaiting us in 2019 as we get our first ever close look at a Kuiper Belt object.

The object was previously known as 2014 MU69.

A camera on board the New Horizons spacecraft is now zooming in on Ultima Thule, so scientists can get a better sense of its shape and configuration - whether it is one object or several.

Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth.

The distances between objects in our solar system, stretching from the Sun to Ultima Thule some 43 astronomical units (AU) away.

"What could be more exciting than that?" said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.

"That's gonna change overnight", said Alan Stern, planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute and principal investigator on the mission. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement".

The flyby of Ultima Thule is going to be quite the challenge, since the object is so small and hard to track from Earth.

Scientists speculate Ultima Thule could be two objects closely orbiting one another. Flying beyond Pluto, the spacecraft will whish into the space streaming to the ancient relic of the solar system.

Ultima Thule was first detected in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope, meaning the rock was only discovered after the New Horizons launch. In 2017, scientists determined that it isn't spherical, but more elongated. This area is so far from the sun, temperatures are just 35 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero. Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, and Pluto is about the size of the United States. With the wildly successful flyby behind them, mission planners won an extension from NASA and set their sights on a destination deep inside the Kuiper Belt. He expects it to continue operating until the late 2030s, pointing out that it is only halfway through the Kuiper Belt.

Pelletier has worked on a number of other space missions, including the voyage the Cassini spacecraft took to Saturn, and he also participated in the Mars Curiosity landing. And we can learn its composition.

"Because this is a flyby mission, we only have one chance to get it right", said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for New Horizons.

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