NASA’s new Horizon spacecraft is on track to perform the furthest flyby in history when it goes past a Kuiper Belt object, named as “Ultima Thule”, more than four billion miles from Earth at 12:33 am EST on January,1.
These flyby activities are taking place at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.
No more than 20 miles (30 kilometers) long, Ultima Thule — officially named 2014 MU69 — is a billion miles beyond Pluto, the last world New Horizons visited. It’s reddish in color, and scientists have pinpointed its location with remarkable precision for an object just discovered in 2014.
The Kuiper Belt lies in the so-called “third zone” of our solar system, beyond the terrestrial planets (inner zone) and gas giants (middle zone). This vast region contains billions of objects, including comets, dwarf planets like Pluto and “planetesimals” like Ultima Thule.
The objects in this region are believed to be frozen in time — relics left over from the formation of the solar system.
Other than that, Ultima Thule’s appearance is transferred to the imaginations of scientists and space enthusiasts. That will change in a hurry once pictures snapped by the New Horizons spacecraft’s black-and-white and color cameras begin coming back to Earth on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We don’t know a thing about MU69, we’ve never, in the history of spaceflight, gone to a target that we knew less about, and it’s remarkable that we’re on the verge of knowing a great deal about this”, said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute.
Ultima Thule is just starting to be resolved by New Horizon’s LORRI imaging camera. That will change rapidly as the probe speeds toward it at 32,000 mph (14 kilometers per second).
Scientists believe Ultima Thule is a relic from the early solar system 4.5 billion years ago, a type of object known as a “cold classical” because it stayed in roughly the same orbit where it formed.
Pluto is the largest known object in the Kuiper Belt, where scientists think short-period comets originated. but these new discoveries will open a new window into how all planetary systems are born and evolve, said Jason Kalirai, the executive for the civil space mission area at APL.