NASA's New Horizons to flyby mysterious Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons to flyby mysterious Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons to flyby mysterious Ultima Thule

"In the coming days New Horizons will go down in history!"

"To me it epitomises the human spirit's unceasing desire to understand the universe we inhabit".

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following Tuesday's official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won't be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in colour, it is hoped. The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

Nasa rang in the new year with a live online broadcast to mark the spacecraft's zoom past the mysterious object located in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.

'In effect, Ultima should be a valuable window into the early stages of planet formation and what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago'.

It will take an estimated 10 hours for flight controllers to find out whether the spacecraft has survived the close encounter - and will find out if the pass was successful at about 3pm United Kingdom time.

NASA has described the achievement as a "leap for humankind" because no spacecraft has ever "circled so close to such a small space object - one with barely enough gravity to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit". It has been flying through space for more than a dozen years.

Spacecraft New Horizons is on course for a flyby of the Ultima Thule object on January 1, when it is expected to break its own record for humanity's most distant tour of a cosmic object.

Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched, according to NASA, making the mission unique in that respect. The object was subsequently designated 2014 MU69, given the minor planet number 485968.

Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth. Its name means "distant places beyond the known world". It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey. Ultima Thule's birthplace is important to scientists, because it's a historic part of the solar system and its temperature is barely above absolute zero, which is why it has a chilly appearance.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years.

A highly processed image, acquired 37 hours before the flyby, showed a fuzzy view of what appeared to be an elongated object that's been compared to a peanut. Astronomers believe it is a contact binary, comprising two objects touching each other, or perhaps even a binary system, in which two objects are orbiting one another.

Based on its circular orbit, as opposed to the elliptical orbits of the planets, Ultima Thule formed 4 billion miles away in the middle of the Kuiper Belt. No one has ever seen an object that's frozen nearly to absolute zero.

"Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, but its scientific value is incalculable".

The mission also offers to sign up for New Horizons on Twitter, where you can join the conversation using the hashtags #UltimaThule, #UltimaFlyby and #askNewHorizons. It will also measure the Kuiper Belt's environment. "To show that presence, to really be here for these missions as we do these very challenging maneuvers".

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth. And we can learn its composition.

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