NASA's unmanned spaceship closes in on most distant world ever studied

NASA's unmanned spaceship closes in on most distant world ever studied”

As people are ringing in the new year on Earth, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will be conducting a flyby of Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object more than 4 billion miles away.

The spacecraft, which launched in 2006, captured stunning images of Pluto when it flew by the dwarf planet in 2015. The New Horizons mission was extended in 2016 to visit this Kuiper Belt object.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will zip past the scrawny, icy object nicknamed Ultima Thule (TOO-lee) soon after the stroke of midnight.

Well, in the months since that updated the probe has been speeding along at over 30,000 miles per hour and, as luck would have it, it'll reach its current destination on New Year's Day.

And even though missions have flown through the Kuiper Belt, considered the third zone of the solar system, they weren't able to explore it because scientists didn't even know about it until the 1990s.

The mysterious object the craft will be exploring is officially known as 2014 MU69 but its unofficial name is Ultima Thule.

Already there is reason to believe something unusual lies just around the corner.

The probe's current target is an object known as Ultima Thule. And even though there are reasonable explanations for this, having to deal with a mystery so early on does nothing but to entice researchers even further. If twins, each could be 9 miles to 12 miles (15 kilometres to 20 kilometres) in diameter.

After a "health status check" on the spacecraft, more images will start to appear January 2 and in the first week of the new year, which will tell whether Ultima Thule is sporting any rings, satellites or an atmosphere. At the very least, the nuclear-powered New Horizons will continue to observe objects from afar, as it pushes deeper into the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons will have its scientific instruments pointing toward the object, measuring its color, composition, thermal signature, and other properties. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey. "However, it takes nearly six hours each way or about 12 hours and 15 minutes round trip to communicate with the spacecraft".

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

"To me, that is what's most exciting-this is pure exploration and fundamental science".

The data that will be sent back will take around six hours to reach Earth and Stern says that the images will be ready for release by January 2nd.

"Remember, it's about the size of greater San Antonio, and about as reflective as garden variety dirt", Stern said.

Today, New Horizons is 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. It will also measure the Kuiper Belt's environment.

New Horizons must execute a series of pre-planned tasks when it flies by Ultima Thule on January 1st at 12:33AM ET, coming within 2,200 miles of the rock's surface. Tune in to live coverage from mission headquarters at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Baltimore, Md., where the New Horizon's science team will hold a discussion when the first signal arrives back from Ultima Thule on New Year's Day from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m.

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