Pluto explorer ushering in new year at more distant world

Pluto explorer ushering in new year at more distant world

About a day prior, "we will start to see what the actual shape of the object is", she said.

New Horizons will fly three times closer to Ultima than it did by Pluto, coming within 2,200 miles of it and providing a better look at the surface. This area is so far from the sun, temperatures are just 35 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero.

On Christmas Day, NASA's Alan Stern, the New Horizons Principal Investigator, announced that the New Horizons probe is preparing to encounter Ultima Thule - a somewhat mysterious body found in a cloud of asteroids, comets and dwarf planets that is most commonly known as the Kuiper Belt. It's hard to tell, but at the very least the nuclear-powered spacecraft will continue to observe as much as it can, continuing to travel deeper into the Kuiper Belt.

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. This occultation - or momentary eclipse - revealed that Ultima Thule is either shaped like a rubber duck - or it could be two separate rocks orbiting very close to one another. It will be the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft. That's about the distance between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with Ultima Thule appearing about as large to New Horizons as the full moon does to observers on Earth, Stern said. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement". It was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope. Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, and Pluto is about the size of the United States. 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.

"We expect that Ultima is the most well-preserved sample of a planetary building block ever explored", NASA said.

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An artist's illustration of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft as it flies by Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto on January 1, 2019.

Following its successful 2015 flyby, NASA managed to extend the New Horizon's expedition.

The data that will be sent back will take around six hours to reach Earth and Stern says that the images will be ready for release by January 2nd.

However, because New Horizons is going to be moving so fast as it passes the rock - around 32,000 miles per hour - it won't have long to make its observations. And we can learn its composition.

"What could be more exciting than that?" said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.

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