New Horizons Reaches Far-flung “Ultima Thule”

NASA’s outward-bound explorer rings within the new 12 months with probably the most distant flyby in space-exploration historical past.

Having visited Pluto and the small Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is headed out of the photo voltaic system.

Within the frigid, silent depths of the Kuiper Belt, the New Horizons spacecraft efficiently flew previous a tiny world nicknamed “Ultima Thule” (UL-ti-muh TOO-lee), that means “past the recognized world,” within the first hours of 2019. (Its official designation is 2014 MU69.) The extremely anticipated flyby, at 5:33 Common Time at present, got here 3½ years after the spacecraft’s historic encounter with Pluto on July 14, 2015, and occurred some four.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km from the Solar) — probably the most distant object ever visited at shut vary.

New Hoirizons and 2014 MU69 artwork

Inventive portrayal of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft cruising by 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019.
Steve Gribben / NASA / JHU-APL / SwRI

Greater than that, the observations from New Horizons’ seven experiments, now safely stashed on the craft’s solid-state recorders, promise to disclose secrets and techniques of the “Third Zone” of the Solar’s realm — distant objects which have remained frozen in time because the formation of our photo voltaic system’s formation 4½ billion years in the past.

Affirmation of the flyby’s success did not attain the mission’s management middle — Johns Hopkins College’s Utilized Physics Laboratory (JHU-APL) in Laurel, Maryland — for 10 hours. That is as a result of the spacecraft remained out of contact because it scrutinized its goal and since its telemetry now takes 6 hours to achieve Earth. “Now we have a wholesome spacecraft,” introduced mission managed Alice Bowman.

As soon as this “telephone house” standing report reached the bottom, a whole lot of anxious mission scientists, information media, and others erupted with applause. “I can not promise you success,” principal investigator Alan Stern had warned the day earlier than. “We’re straining the capabilities of this spacecraft.”

The flyby can also be straining the endurance of the mission’s scientists. By design, the spacecraft returns its observations to Earth very slowly, at not more than 1,000 bits per second, and Stern cautions that the perfect photographs and spectra of 2014 MU69 won’t be in hand till February. Highest precedence will likely be transmitting knowledge that reveal the item’s geology, its composition, and whether or not it is surrounded by rings or very small satellites.

Rotation of "Ultima Thule"

This sequence of three photographs, acquired on December 31, 2018, and brought 70 and 85 minutes aside by New Horizons’ LORRI digital camera, exhibits the rotation of “Ultima Thule.”

When its closest to 2014 MU69, the spacecraft handed by simply 2,200 miles (three,500 km) away, zipping by at 9 miles (14 km) per second. So the encounter was temporary and intense. For now, the perfect view is only a few pixels throughout, recorded as a part of “fail protected” observations taken when New Horizons was nonetheless roughly 500,000 miles away.

However that fuzzy view is sufficient to verify that “Ultima” is distinctly elongated — formed like a peanut or, conceivably, two objects orbiting one another very carefully — measuring about 22 by 10 miles (35 by 15 km). This form matches the end result of three dangerous occultations, recorded in mid-2017 by telescope-toting observing groups in South America and Africa when the item handed instantly in entrance of faint stars.

Unexpectedly, 2014 MU69 seems to be spinning slowly like a propeller, with its rotation axis pointing roughly towards the Solar. Consequently, regardless of its irregular form, the item doesn’t exhibit brightness modifications. (This trait was first detected throughout intensive observations by the Hubble Area Telescope in mid-2017.)

It additionally means that among the floor remained in shadow as New Horizons approached flew previous.

Brian May at New Horizons flyby

Musician-astronomer Brian Could speaks to reporters in the course of the New Horizons flyby of 2014 MU69.
J. Kelly Beatty / Sky & Telescope

The science observations will proceed trickling again to Earth, although transmissions will likely be suspended from January 4th to seventh, when the road of sight to the spacecraft passes near the Solar. Extra detailed observations, together with the primary coloration views of 2014 MU69, needs to be obtainable tomorrow, and I will be reporting on these outcomes too — so verify again right here then.

Lastly, to underscore how the New Horizons mission has, actually, broadened our scientific horizons, onlookers at JHU-APL had been handled to the debut of a music written by Brian Could, greatest generally known as the guitarist for Queen however who additionally holds a doctorate in astronomy and serves as a science collaborator (specializing in stereo imagery) with the mission. Have a hear!

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