Excitement Ahead of Distant Nasa Flyby.
when Nasa's New Horizons probe sweeps past the icy world known as
Occurring some 6.5 billion km (4 billion miles) from Earth, the
flyby will set a new record for the most distant ever exploration of a
Solar System object by a spacecraft.
New Horizons will gather a swathe of images and other data over
the course of just a few hours leading up to and beyond the closest
approach. This is timed for 05:33 GMT.
At that moment, the probe will be about 3,500km from Ultima's
surface and moving at 14km/s.
When its observations are complete, the robotic craft will then
turn to Earth to report in and begin downlinking the gigabytes of
information stored in its memory.
Mission scientists, gathered in a control centre at the Johns
Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, are
excited at what lies in prospect.
"It's electric. People across the whole team are ready. They're in the
game and we can't wait to go exploring," says New Horizons' principal
investigator Prof Alan Stern.
The probe is famous for making the first ever visit to the dwarf
planet Pluto in 2015. To reach Ultima, it has had to push 1.5 billion km
deeper into space.
Virtually nothing is known about this next target for New
Telescopic measurements indicate it is about 20-30km across
although scientists concede it could actually be two separate entities
moving very close to each other, perhaps even touching. The next
couple of days will tell.
Ultima is in what's termed the Kuiper belt - the band of distant,
frozen material that orbits far from the Sun and the eight major planets.
There are probably hundreds of thousands of Kuiper members like
Ultima, and their frigid state almost certainly holds clues to the
formation conditions of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.
"About one day out we'll turn on all our instruments," explains mission
scientist Dr. Kelsi Singer. "We'll take black and white images; we'll take
colour images. And we'll take compositional information... This is just
such a new object because we've never been to an object like this
before. It's hard to predict but I'm ready to be surprised by what we
Nasa wanted to explore something beyond Pluto and this object
Remarkably, it was only discovered four years ago by the Hubble
Initially catalogued as (486958) 2014 MU69, it was given the more
catchy nickname of Ultima Thule (Pronounced: Tool-ee) after a public
It's a Latin phrase that means something like "a place beyond
the known world".
Like many Kuiper belt objects of its size, it is likely to be
composed of a lot of ice, dust and maybe some larger rock fragments,
which came together at the dawn of the Solar System.
Theory suggests such bodies will take on an elongated or lobate
form. Think potato or peanut.
Distant telescopic observations suggested its surface is very
dark, with a bit of a red tinge. That darkness (it reflects only about 10%
of the light falling on its surface) is the result of having been "burnt"
through the eons by high-energy radiation - cosmic rays and X-rays.
New Horizons will study Ultima's shape, rotation, composition
Scientists want to know how these far-off worlds were
assembled. One idea is that they grew from the mass accretion of a
great many pebble-sized grains, the BBC news reported.
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