Wednesday, 20 March, 2019

Pluto explorer ushering in new year at more distant world

Quebec's Pelletier leads 'farthest exploration of any planetary body in history' NASA Is About To Perform The Most Distant Planetary Flyby Ever
Cary Marshall | 29 December, 2018, 03:28

It will fly past the asteroid Ultima Thule, or its official name (486958) 2014 MU69, which is more than six billion kilometres away in the Kuiper Belt.

The cosmic object, known as Ultima Thule, is about the size of the USA capital, Washington, and orbits in the dark and frigid Kuiper Belt about a billion miles beyond the dwarf planet, Pluto. 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.

The team reached its goal when the vehicle successfully flew by the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015, and sent back data "that resulted in profound new insights about Pluto and its moons, " according to the space agency's website. The spacecraft will zoom within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometres) of Ultima Thule, its seven science instruments going full blast.

A camera on board the New Horizons spacecraft is now zooming in on Ultima Thule, so scientists can get a better sense of its shape and configuration - whether it is one object or several.

The voyage beyond Pluto to the Kuiper Belt is part of the extended mission. This is the region of space beyond the orbit of Neptune comprised of numerous small frozen objects - thought to be leftover remnants from the birth of the Solar System 4.5 billion years ago.

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FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Pelletier said scientists estimate Ultima Thule to be about the same size as Washington D.C. If a solo act, it's likely 20 miles (32 kilometres) long at most. Ultima could even be two objects, but only the flyby will tell for sure.

Scientists will map Ultima Thule every possible way. As for colour, Ultima Thule should be darker than coal, burned by eons of cosmic rays, with a reddish hue. A year before that historic encounter, astronomers discovered Ultima Thule, giving the mission team a tantalizing second target to visit.

Encounter Mode means that if there were to be an issue with the flyby instructions sent from Earth, the onboard software will take over and correct any problems itself, instead of calling back to Earth. The objective of the survey was to find an object worthy of study by New Horizons, and scientists know very little about it.

Later on New Years Day NASA will broadcast the signal acquisition from New Horizons, confirming that it gathered the data it was instructed to and building up some serious hype for the eventual reveal of the first images of the distant object. There are countless objects out there, waiting to be explored. The AP is exclusively responsible for all content.

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