NASA spaceship closes in on distant world

This artist's illustration obtained from NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 – nicknamed "Ultima
This artist's illustration obtained from NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 – nicknamed "Ultima Thule" –- a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto

NASA's unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on its historic New Year's flyby target, the most distant world ever studied, a frozen relic of the solar system some four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away.

The , known as Ultima Thule, is about the size of the US capital, Washington, and orbits in the dark and frigid Kuiper Belt about a billion miles beyond the dwarf planet, Pluto.

The 's closest approach to this primitive space rock comes January 1 at 12:33 am ET (0533 GMT).

Until then, what it looks like, and what it is made of, remain a mystery.

"This is a that is going to take us back four and a half billion years to the birth of the solar system," said Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the project at the Southwest Research Institute, during a press briefing Friday.

A camera on board the New Horizons spacecraft is currently zooming in on Ultima Thule, so scientists can get a better sense of its shape and configuration—whether it is one object or several.

"We've never been to a type of object like this before," said Kelsi Singer, New Horizons co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.

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

The spacecraft entered "encounter mode" on December 26, and is "very healthy," added Stern.

Communicating with a spacecraft that is so far away takes six hours and eight minutes each way—or about 12 hours and 15 minutes round trip.

New Horizons' eagerly awaited "phone home" command, indicating if it survived the close pass—at a distance of just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers)—is expected January 1 at 10:29 am (1529 GMT).

Until then, the New Horizons spacecraft continues speeding through space at 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, traveling almost a million miles per day.

And NASA scientists are eagerly awaiting the first images.

"Because this is a , we only have one chance to get it right," said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for New Horizons.

The spacecraft, which launched in 2006, captured stunning images of Pluto when it flew by the dwarf planet in 2015.

Explore further

NASA spacecraft hurtles toward historic New Year's flyby

© 2018 AFP

Citation: NASA spaceship closes in on distant world (2018, December 28) retrieved 23 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Dec 28, 2018
Clickbait article title. Since when is a chunk of rock the size of a city considered a world?

Dec 28, 2018
Careful Tan, people get upset when I point out the flagrant abuses of the English language.

& if that makes me sound like a hypocrite? Just means your paying attention!

People want easy to remember soundbites to drop into their everyday conversations. That match the memes & makes them sound "cool" & "hip".

Clickbait headlines are a simple prompt to remember.

The purpose of these breathless, geewhiz articles? Is to try to stir up Public enthusiasm for these long-range/long-duration missions.

That after all the original investment in developing, constructing, launching these expensive probes? That the researchers & support staffs can reuse the probe for new tasks. Thereby, further justifying the funding & time consumed.

Dec 28, 2018
Pity we could not have some stirring clickbait sound bites concerning Pluto
It's not even a world
It's a dwarf world

Dec 28, 2018
Inhabited by Hobbits or where old Dobbies go when they have served their master well - no doubt.
:>) I see that rrwilliejoe is still using a question mark where a comma would suffice.

Dec 28, 2018
@SEU: they're not worthwhile because they ignore jebus and the Babble.

Dec 29, 2018
768,000 miles per day... thats quite a fudge factor to say a million...

Dec 29, 2018
That's a fair amount of "ground" to cover each day. But since this is only a "flyby" attempt - where will New Horizons head for after the photos are taken? Not even a scraping of the surface - how disappointing.
"New Horizons' eagerly awaited "phone home" command,"

They STILL can't get over that old movie - E.T.- can they. The kids from that movie have all grown up, but NASA hasn't forgotten the "call home".
And the "size of the US Capitol - Washington" is far from anyone's idea of a "world".

Dec 29, 2018
well, seu? segue? suppurate?
I agree with your observation? That scientific designations are skewed towards popular memes?

I have certainly never shied from complaining about the lack of imagination? Shown by researchers to the language they use? Attempting to explain their work? To the general public?

However? That Public helps to pay the bills for the research? To gain their attention, interest & support? Versus the myriad of competing daily events? It's a bit of a conundrum?

I think titling this small body Ultima Thule & designating it a "world"? Is a bit of hyperbole but it succeeded? In attracting Public Interest?

Most likely it is just an iceball. it's orbit has ever been disrupted? From the ancient circular to ellipsoidal? Or, it would be listed as a comet?

Which brings up all the whoohaw about Planet 9 or X? Or close passage of neighboring stars?
& intermingling Oort Spheres?

Over billions of years? Why wasn't Ultima Thule's orbit disrupted?

Jan 02, 2019
As long as are wandering,Walt Thornhill theorizes that Saturn was a red dwarf with the Earth, Mars and Moon in its orbit, with the electrical pressure equalizing after wandering into Sol's orbit by ejecting Venus. He feels this must be as the axial tilt is not the sun's. I have theorized that our sun was actually a red giant encompassing all the inner planets orbits. I have no theory as to how, but Sol was created when the red giant I refer to as the Beetle Sun, condensed under massive pressure to be the sun. Perhaps this event may have created the sun's tilt different from the red giant. I don't even know if the is possible.

Jan 02, 2019
Since when is a chunk of rock the size of a city considered a world?

World as defined by Merriam-Webster:
14 : a celestial body (such as a planet)

It's not a clickbait title, it's a perfectly acceptable use of the word.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more