NASA spaceship nears edge of Solar System - Ultima Thule

Eloise Marshall
January 1, 2019

"New Horizons will map Ultima Thule, map its surface composition, determine how many moons it has and find out if it has rings or even an atmosphere", said New Horizons principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern, also of Southwest Research Institute.

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft", Stern said at a news conference Monday.

So when NASA chose a target for its New Horizons spacecraft that was farther than anything explored before, "Ultima Thule" seemed a fitting moniker.

The flyby at 12:33 am Tuesday (0533 GMT) will take place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft. Ultima Thule orbits the sun from the Kuiper Belt - a massive region of frozen rocky bodies beyond Neptune's orbit.

The encounter with Ultima Thule will be brief and technically demanding, even more so than New Horizons' Pluto flyby.

A version of the image with superimposed lines shows where stars blinked out as they passed behind Ultima Thule, and two red circles indicate how Ultima Thule would be oriented if it is really a pair of objects.

After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects, but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.

At 11:30 a.m., scientists involved with the New Horizons mission will describe the images and data returned by the spacecraft. "Since this will be the farthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our flyby target Ultima, for short, symbolizing this ultimate exploration by NASA and our team".

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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.

But if all goes well, the first images should be in hand by the end of New Year's Day.

It's hard to know the exact location of the object, although NASA published several graphical representations of the New Horizons' trajectory through the Kuiper Belt. Cold classicals are thought to rank among the solar system's most primitive objects, and New Horizons' encounter could shed more light on the process that led to planetary formation.

The almost circular orbit of Ultima Thule indicates it originated at its current distance from the Sun.

According to project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, humans didn't even know the Kuiper Belt - a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system - existed until the 1990s.

Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa.

At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft, scientists will count down to the moment of New Horizons' closest approach, at 12:33 a.m.

"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver.

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