The New Horizons Spacecraft Has Spotted Ultima Thule – One of the Remotest Bodies in the Solar System

Wednesday, 29 August 2018 - 12:09PM
Space
NASA
Wednesday, 29 August 2018 - 12:09PM
The New Horizons Spacecraft Has Spotted Ultima Thule – One of the Remotest Bodies in the Solar System
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Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
New Horizons has already broken new ground and made headlines with its first-ever close-up photos of Pluto and even found evidence for a giant wall of hydrogen floating at the boundaries of our solar system, but its journey isn't over. Ever since New Horizons reawakened back in June, it's been on a new mission: to explore the most distant object in our solar system, MU69, which is roughly 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. Now, New Horizons has the icy little rock in its sights, even though it's still 100 million miles away.

A while back, NASA held a contest to nickname MU69, whose exploration would mark another moment where humanity pushed beyond the boundaries of known space. Though some pretty lofty names made it to the final nominations (including Pangu, Rubicon, Olympus, Pinnacle and...uh..."Tiramisu"), the final choice was "Ultima Thule," the name of a mythical island at the edge of the world. According to New Horizons' principal investigator Alan Stern: "MU69 is humanity's next Ultima Thule. Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement. 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."

Despite its remoteness and plenty of cosmic interference, New Horizons has already managed to pick Ultima out of a field of stars and other cosmic bodies. "It really is like finding a needle in a haystack," says Hal Weaver, a project scientist on the mission. "In these first images, Ultima appears only as a bump on the side of a background star that's roughly 17 times brighter, but Ultima will be getting brighter-and easier to see-as the spacecraft gets closer."


(Image credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Despite the grainy quality of the image, it still represents a triumph for the NASA team. "We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible," said Stern. "We are on Ultima's doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits!"
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