Spacecraft to go beyond Pluto on New Year's Day cosmic rock flyby

Quebec's Pelletier leads 'farthest exploration of any planetary body in history'

Quebec's Pelletier leads 'farthest exploration of any planetary body in history'

MU69, now nicknamed Ultima Thule, was ideally placed on New Horizons' path out of the Solar System, as the spacecraft had managed to carry enough fuel to fire its thrusters and reach the object after it had reached Pluto in 2015. Ultima Thule's largely circular orbit means that it's nearly certainly spent its entire existence over six billion kilometers from the Sun.

As you can see, anyone who is staying up for the big ball to drop and kick off the new year on the East Coast will only have to wait a little while to catch live coverage of the New Horizons spacecraft's close approach to Ultima Thule.

It was back in August that NASA showed off images from its New Horizons spacecraft which had just spotted its next flyby target sitting a whopping 100 million miles away.

It will fly by Ultima Thule at a distance of about 3,500 kilometres, going 14 kilometres per second - or 50,000 kilometres per hour.

Any other changes will need to be sent to New Horizons by December 30, as it takes 12 hours for the messages to be transmitted to the spacecraft.

The probe's current target is an object known as Ultima Thule. Compensating for that somewhat is that the dim sunlight in the Kuiper Belt left it past the "snow line" for a variety of gasses, meaning those gasses froze out to form particles.

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The Kuiper Belt is the edge of our solar system, part of the original disk from which the sun and planets formed. 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.

Scientists speculate Ultima Thule could be two objects closely orbiting one another. 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. If it's a single rock, it could be around 20 miles wide. Ultima could even be two objects, but only the flyby will tell for sure. As for colour, Ultima Thule should be darker than coal, burned by eons of cosmic rays, with a reddish hue. Due to their temperature they can not change internally and externally, keeping them frozen in time over billions of years. It took 4 1/2 hours, each way, for flight controllers at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, to get a message to or from New Horizons at Pluto.

The Kuiper Belt is full of small, icy bodies and worlds, and we don't know much about Ultima Thule. That is why New Horizon's flyby is very important for NASA.

It will take nearly two years for New Horizons to beam back all its data on Ultima Thule. The goal of the survey was to find an object worthy of study by New Horizons, and scientists know very little about it.

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education.

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