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NASA Is About To Perform The Most Distant Planetary Flyby Ever

NASA Is About To Perform The Most Distant Planetary Flyby Ever

Following on from its phenomenally successful flyby of Pluto, the spacecraft will perform its closest flyby of a small Kuiper Belt object at just after midnight in the US Eastern time zone-the one where the operations center of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is located. "However, it takes nearly six hours each way or about 12 hours and 15 minutes round trip to communicate with the spacecraft".

The New Horizons probe will photograph the extraterrestrial object during a flyby in an attempt to better understand the outer reaches of the Milky Way. It will zoom within about 3541 kilometres of Ultima Thule, its seven science instruments going full blast. It only reflects about 10 percent of the sunlight that reaches it, but imparts a reddish tint to what little light escapes. The name Ultima Thule was chosen through a nickname campaign hosted by the New Horizons team.

"Those temperatures should preserve the record of the formation of Ultima Thule very faithfully over all those billions of years", Dr Stern said. "I think the fun of this is we don't know what we're going to see".

The flyby of Ultima Thule is going to be quite the challenge, since the object is so small and hard to track from Earth. This will provide insight about what it was like as our solar system was forming 4.5 billion years ago and how small planets like Pluto formed.

The discovery of the Kuiper Belt in the mid-1990s made Pluto - the largest body in the belt - an attractive target, and many, including Stern, credit the discovery with getting the mission approved. The end result was a collection of small icy bodies, the vast majority smaller than Pluto.

Ultima Thule lies 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt - a cosmic doughnut of small primitive objects.

The mission will create a number of additional firsts, as this will be the most distant flyby we've attempted.

Today, New Horizons is 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth.

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Ultima Thule is a enigmatic trans-Neptunian object found five billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt region.

On January 1st, 2019, the spacecraft will come very, very close to Ultima Thule.

As San Antonio rings in the New Year, NASA expects to celebrate a historic first flyby on the edge of our solar system. "We don't know much about its size and shape", Dr Stern said. It was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope.

"That's what keeps me up at night", said Marc Buie, who talked with TPR in February about executing occultations for the New Horizons mission, "is it gonna be there when we get there?"

The objects in the Kuiper Belt are extremely cold - a mere 35 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero.

"The Voyagers didn't even look at the Kuiper Belt because they didn't know there was a Kuiper Belt to look at", Dr Stern said. However, because New Horizons is going to be moving so fast as it passes the rock - around 32,000 miles per hour - it won't have long to make its observations.

"The spacecraft is very healthy, it's not using any of its back-up systems and it has power and fuel to operate for close to 20 more years", Dr Stern said. By New Year's Eve, it will fill 1,000 pixels. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.

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