The New Horizons Spacecraft Is Closing in on Ultima Thule for a 'Historic' Flyby

Friday, 26 October 2018 - 1:43PM
Space
Solar System
Friday, 26 October 2018 - 1:43PM
The New Horizons Spacecraft Is Closing in on Ultima Thule for a 'Historic' Flyby
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NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Earlier this year, NASA announced that the next stop for the New Horizons spacecraft after Pluto would be Ultima Thule, a distant object that orbits the Sun at a distance 40 times that of the Earth. In fact, Ultima Thule will be the most distant cosmic object ever explored by a spacecraft, which is fitting considering Thule's name essentially translates to "beyond the farthest frontiers." It lies in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of ice and rock that surrounds the outer edges of our solar system, and New Horizons should arrive at its doorstep around New Year's Day 2019.

Despite being almost twice as bright as other objects in the Kuiper Belt (which allowed the New Horizons team to spot it from a distance of 100 million miles), Ultima Thule still lies shrouded in mystery. The team isn't even sure if it's a single object—one theory is that Thule is actually two closely orbiting bodies. Another question is whether it has its own moon, a dust cloud, or even a debris ring surrounding it, all of which could endanger the spacecraft if it gets too close. Right now, the plan is to fly within 2,175 miles of Ultima Thule to ensure the craft can get a good look at Thule, but there's an alternate plan to do the flyby at a distance of 6,200 miles if it turns out to be too risky.

One of the major reasons for the mission is to get a better understanding of the composition and nature of the rocks that make up the Kuiper Belt, which is made up of the remnants of our solar system's protoplanetary disk (the collection of gas, ice, and dust that originally formed the planets). According to Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the mission: "New Horizons is going to have the capability in the space of one week, the first week of January 2019, to confirm or refute the very models [of solar system formation] presented here at the Division of Planetary Sciences meeting."

Still, there's a lot of unknowns. "Really, we have no idea what to expect," Stern admitted. "Whatever we do, it's going to be historic."

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