After Pluto, New Horizons probe draws in close to her next goal: Ultima Thule

An artist image of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly by the small object 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, on Jan. 1, 2019. Recent observations suggest that Ultima Thule, in fact, two co-job bodies.

(Steve Gribben/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Do not sleep on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

The history-making probe, which famously zoomed past Pluto in July 2015 is closed on the next flyby target, a frigid chunk of ice and rock about 4 billion miles (6.4 billion km from the Earth called Ultima Thule.

New Horizons is now only 80 million miles (130 million km) of Ultima Thule, the mission members said on Wednesday (Sept. 19). That is less than the distance from the Earth to the sun (approximately 93 million miles, or 150 million km). [Destination Pluto: NASA’s New Horizons Mission in Pictures]

The spacecraft has already started with the shooting of Ultima Thule for navigation purposes only and remains on course to sail within a mere 2,200 miles (3,540 km) of Ultima in the small hours of Jan. 1, 2019. The data New Horizons collects during that meeting hshould shed considerable light on the solar system’s early days, said mission principal investigator Alan Stern.

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  • Ultima Thule

  • Destination Pluto: NASA’s New Horizons Mission in Pictures

  • 2015 meeting

“Ultima Thule to the origins of our solar system, and it is in this deep freeze since then, Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said during a webcast event Wednesday.

“It is like making an archaeological dig into the history of our solar system,” he added. “We have never been to something like this.”

Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014 (and is formally known as the 2014 MU69). The object surface is red and dark — on reflective as potting soil, Stern said. And Ultima Thule appears about 23 miles (37 km) wide.

But the goal remains shrouded in mystery. The composition and the form are unknown, for example, is the precise job. Researchers don’t know for sure, or Ultima Thule has no moons or debris rings, or even if it is a single object. Indeed, Ultima may also consist of a couple of close-orbit bodies, New Horizons team members have said.

The next flyby will be the clean up of such questions. But the pull of the epic encounter will not be easy, Stern stressed Wednesday.

Ultima Thule is 1 billion miles (1.6 km) beyond Pluto and is much smaller than the dwarf planet. New Horizons is 3 years older now, with the lower energy levels. And the probe will try to be much closer to the Ultima on Jan. 1 than it ever got from Pluto. (2015 meeting had a close-approach distance of 7,800 miles or 12,550 km).

“Everything about this flyby is more difficult,” Stern said.

New Horizons will have a shot at the flyby, which will occur if the probe is to zoom along at about 32,000 mph (51,500 km/h). Stern said he thinks the team and the spacecraft of the challenge. But just as in the rest of life, there are no guarantees, especially given the boundary-pushing nature of this mission.

“It is truly an adventure of exploration,” Stern said.

The $720 million New Horizons mission launched in January 2006, tasked with lifting the veil on Pluto. The Ultima Thule encounter is the midpoint of the probe in the extended mission, which also included the study of far from a variety of other objects in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of ice bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune.

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