Published: Wed, January 02, 2019
Sci-tech | By Spencer Schmidt

Voyager to explore most distant world yet, 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto

Voyager to explore most distant world yet, 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto

This New Year's Day, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will make the most distant flyby in the solar system to date. The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system.

NASA has calculated New Horizons will flyby at 5.33am GMT (00.33 EST) on Saturday, January 1. Once the spacecraft flies by Ultima Thule, it will become the farthest world ever visited by a human-made object, a record that likely will stand for decades to come. Well, in the months since that updated the probe has been speeding along at over 30,000 miles per hour and, as luck would have it, it'll reach its current destination on New Year's Day.

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). The craft is now so far from Earth that it takes six hours and eight minutes to receive a command sent from Earth.

"New Horizons snapped the first image of Ultima in August this year, and the images that will be captured will give a closer look at the small Kuiper Belt object".

The success at Pluto and the spacecraft's continuing good health, plus the identification in 2014 of a KBO along its route, won approval for the extended mission that will reach its climax on Tuesday. Its official designation is 2014 MU69.

New Horizons will get considerably closer to Ultima Thule than it did to Pluto: 2,220 miles versus 7,770 miles (3,500 kilometres vs. 12,500 kilometres).

Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth.

Frédéric Pelletier is guiding the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto.

Dr Alan Stern, the NASA New Horizons mission's head, said: "What will Ultima reveal?" "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement". The flyby of Ultima Thule is being described by the space agency as the "farthest exploration of any planetary body in history".

And NASA scientists are eagerly awaiting the first images. The objects in this region are believed to be frozen in time - relics left over from the formation of the solar system.

Call it the little spacecraft that could. change what we know about our galaxy.

Kelsi Singer, New Horizons co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute said, "We've never been to a type of object like this before". It was able to detect and focus on Ultima Thule only by using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, as the rock is too small and faint to visualize with telescopes available on Earth. In 2017, scientists determined that it isn't spherical, but more elongated.

The mission will create a number of additional firsts, as this will be the most distant flyby we've attempted.

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. It could be something around 35 degrees Kelvin over absolute zero.

Stern said any new discoveries from Ultima Thule will help unlock mysteries of the solar system's history.

NASA's New Horizon is about to boldly go where no spacecraft has gone before.

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The spacecraft's instruments will be on the lookout for objects with rings and moons and measure Kuiper Belt dust production and distribution.

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