NASA to make historic New Year’s Day flyby of the mysterious ‘Ultima Thule’

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make a close flyby of the Kuiper Belt object, Ultima Thule, shown here in an artistic illustration, on Jan. 1, 2019. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)
(NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)

As of 2018 to close and a new year dawns, a group of people planning to celebrate something much more unusual — a flyby of the most distant solar system object ever studied.

On Tues. Jan. 1, 12:33 a.m. EST(0533 GMT), NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies by Ultima Thule, the small rock in orbit about 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from the sun. Here’s how to watch the flyby online today and tomorrow.

Even in the last days of the approach, however, Ultima Thule plays things close to the vest. “We have never in the history of space travel to have a purpose that we know less about,” Alan Stern, principal investigator of New Horizons and a researcher at the Southwest Research Center in Colorado, told reporters Sunday (Dec. 30). [Ultima Thule Flyby! Full Coverage]

But when the spacecraft arrives, it will display a suite of instruments on the mysterious object, and many of its secrets will be revealed. It is the second historic rendez-vous for the New Horizon, which will zip by Pluto in July 2015 on the first flyby of that world.

“We are ready for the science to find the Ultima Thule,” Stern said.

Ringing in the New Year

Lying on the edge of the solar system, Pluto seems only at first glance. Only in the last few decades, scientists have realized that it is one of a collection of objects that make up the Kuiper Belt, a band of rocky, icy objects the edge of the solar system. Smaller than planets, most of the inhabitants are left over from the formation of the solar system. They offer a glimpse of the beginning of the ingredients of the solar system, the bits and pieces that are formed from the larger worlds that we know today. [NASA’s New Horizons Mission in Pictures]

When New Horizons launched in 2006, no one knew anything of Ultima Thule. The scientists discovered the spacecraft’s next target until 2014, about a year before the epic flyby of Pluto. Original name of 2014 MU69, Ultima Thule, one of the three things for a longer mission objective.

Since its 2015 selection as the next object for New Horizons to visit, the researchers have scrambled to learn as much about Ultima Thule. In 2017, they learned that the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) was not spherical, but seemed elongated, or possibly even of two revolving bodies.

If New Horizons is closed on Ultima Thule of the past three months began snapping hundreds of photos of the object. But while the images revealed no sign of possible hazards that could harm the spacecraft, such as asunexpected moons or clouds of debris that could slam into the spacecraft as it flew by the KBO, she also gave no hint about the form of the body is to visit.

In fact, it is still possible that the Ultima Thule is made of not one, but two objects, closely packed together. Stern told Saturday (Dec. 29) that the timeline for resolving the question of whether the CBE is alone or part of a duet, depends on how close to the potential couple are for one another.

“If they touch it, it will until the last day,” he said.

Stay on target

It is now too late to divert the ship to a higher altitude, where it would be safe from any dangers. The last chance to make that decision on Dec. 13, a member of the team Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona said that it takes months to come up with a new path.

At 9 pm EST on Sunday (Dec. 30), engineers, the spacecraft his last command before the flyby, the redirection of the nearest image by two seconds, Bowman said. That modified with the aim point for the flyby, approximately 19 miles (30 km). For comparison, Hersman said that during the Pluto encounter, the spacecraft was about 80 seconds. The team didn’t know until 9 pm EST last night (Sun. Dec 30) that the spacecraft successfully receive the new commands. Had it not gone well, they would have immediately disliked the same update.

New Horizons will fly only 2200 miles (3500 km) above the surface of the KBO, three times closer than companion to Pluto. To save batteries, to the various components of the spacecraft will be temporarily disabled, according to Chris Hersman, Missions Systems Engineer at JHU APL. The student dust counter, which takes approximately one micrometer-sized dust particles per day, and the sending of a portion of one of the radio stations. By disabling these tools, the spacecraft will be able to her scientific instruments.

In the hours leading up to the flyby, the spacecraft will be pointed out on the Ultima Thule, not able to communicate with the Earth.

“We can not in contact with the spacecraft and the data,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager.

When the clock strikes midnight in Maryland, most of the team is not in the control center and in Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL). They have migrated to the nearby Kossiakoff Education and conference center to ring in the new year.

Among them will be astrophysicist Brian May, a mission team member and former lead guitarist of the rock band Queen, who will be playing his new solo song, “New Horizons.”

“We are all we are all huge fans,” Bowman said.

The team of scientists, in each case, will likely remain in the middle to celebrate at the time of the flyby half an hour later, according to Cathy Olkin, New Horizons Deputy Project Scientist. She was not sure about the functioning of the team.

Immediately after the flyby, the spacecraft will return to the Earth and sending them home with an update about the status. The process that Bowman said it takes about 15 minutes on the Earth will be the spacecraft a little more than an hour as the change of the orientation.

After home, it will hit back to study of a retreating Ultima Thule retreating in the distance. The status update must come back to Earth at 10:30 a.m. EST (7:30 pm PST), Bowman says, and the first image to the ground around 2 hours (11 a.m. PST).

According to Stern, the first image is rather crude, but about 6 pixels. Not until the next day, Jan. 2, will have the more detailed images will come back on Earth to be released.

As it closes in on its destination, the spacecraft seems to be in good health. “Everything is looking great,” Bowman said.

New Horizons Project Manager Helene Winters agrees. While the Winters, that is, on the basis of JHU APL, said that most of her fears are set to rest by the images returned by the spacecraft, that does not mean that the team rest easy.

“We have no immediate problems to solve, but the engineers and scientists, we are always thinking about the what-ifs,” said Winters “We want to make sure that we mitigate all possible risks.”

A pristine object

This is the first detection of Ultima Thule with the highest resolution mode of its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on board the New Horizons spacecraft. Three separate images, each with a shutter speed of 0.5 seconds, were combined to produce the image. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
(NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

When the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago, not all the gas and dust around the young sun became the moons and planets. Some of the old debris remained in the form of KBOs and asteroids. But while asteroids are mostly rock, KBOs, such as Ultima Thule are far enough from the sun, they held onto the majority of their ice cream.

“Objects further than Pluto have been untouched since the beginning of the solar system,” Winters said. “The idea is that [Ultima Thule] similar to what things would have looked like at the beginning of the solar system.”

Project scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University, is excited about the visit of the KBO, where he said: “in contrast to everything we have ever looked with a spaceship.” Just three days before the flyby, Ultima Thule remained a single pixel on the images returned by New Horizons. But as the ship grew closer, it grew several times larger each day. The weaver said that as the Ultima Thule turned out to be 20 miles (32 km) across, it would cover about 200 pixels.

“Every pixel is important,” he said, despite the fact that the team planned to wring every bit of science they could of the brief flyby.

What would be the first photos sent back from Ultima Thule?

The weaver said that the team anticipates on an icy surface, probably covered with hydrocarbons. “We are almost positive there will be organic material covering the surface, dark reddish material.”

Grundy, who is the leader of the New Horizons’ surface composition team, said that they expected there is not a lot of surface activity today. However, it is possible that in the beginning of her life, Ultima Thule may have spewed ices and hydrocarbons, and there may be signs of that activity are still present on the surface.

An artist image of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it flies by Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto on Jan. 1, 2019. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

How heavy craters of the KBO might be is also up for debate. To date, Pluto is the only other KBO studied, and surface activity in the past, many of its craters. But Grundy said the team does not anticipate a strong pickled surface.

“We don’t expect [Ultima Thule] very close with craters, but we do not expect that there is no,” he said.

Collisions with the KBO would be slow, with a speed of less than 0.62 miles (1 km) per second. That may sound fast, but Grundy said its nothing compared to the number of kilometres per second effects that occur in the asteroid belt. In fact, KBO effects can be such as dropping a shovel full of dirt on the ground—so slow that they cannot even dig a crater, Grundy said.

But a big crater can be very revealing, cutting through the surface of Ultima Thule. If the KBO broke out of an even larger object, a huge impact crater can reveal layers of material that hint in the direction of the target from the origin. “That would be great,” Grundy said.

It is even possible that Ultima Thule is not one big rock, instead of a huge pile of debris pulled together by gravity.

“It is likely,” Grundy said, pointing out that the bodies of the solar system were all born out of pebble-sized objects. Ultima Thule “was probably born as a pile of rubble,” he said. The force of gravity pulled the material close to each other, and ultimately the formation of a larger rock, but it is possible that Ultima Thule was not quite solid enough to make the merge. A collision could also be a solid object back into a pile of gravitationally bound gravel.

What New Horizons reveals, it is definitely something that has never been seen before.

“We expect a lot of weak results, although Ultima Thule is very stubborn about revealing the secrets,” the Weaver said.

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