NASA spaceship zooms toward farthest world ever photographed

December 31, 2018 by Kerry Sheridan
This artist's illustration obtained from NASA on December 21, 2018 shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 – nicknamed "Ultima Thule" – a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto

A NASA spaceship is zooming toward the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever photographed by humankind, a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule some four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away.

The US space agency will ring in the New Year with a live online broadcast to mark historic flyby of the mysterious object in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt at 12:33 am January 1 (0533 GMT Tuesday).

A guitar anthem recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May—who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics—will be released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation of the flyby, as NASA commentators describe the close pass on www..gov/nasalive.

Real-time video of the actual flyby is impossible, since it takes more six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive.

But if all goes well, the first images should be in hand by the end of New Year's Day.

And judging by the latest tweet from Alan Stern, the lead scientist on the New Horizons mission, the excitement among team members is palpable.

"IT'S HAPPENING!! Flyby is upon us! @NewHorizons2015 is healthy and on course! The farthest exploration of worlds in history!" he wrote on Saturday.

What does it look like?

Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like—whether it is round or oblong or even if it is a single object or a cluster.

It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, and is believed to be 12-20 miles (20-30 kilometers) in size.

Scientists decided to study it with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet.

"At we are going to try to image Ultima at three times the resolution we had for Pluto," said Stern.

"If we can accomplish that it will be spectacular."

Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, the spacecraft aims to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of the surface of Ultima Thule.

The flyby will be fast, at a speed of nine miles (14 kilometers) per second.

Seven instruments on board will record high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition.

Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.

"Ultima Thule means 'beyond Thule'—beyond the borders of the known world—symbolizing the exploration of the distant Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt objects that New Horizons is performing, something never before done," the US space agency said in a statement.

According to project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, mankind didn't even know the Kuiper Belt—a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system— existed until the 1990s.

"This is the frontier of planetary science," said Weaver.

"We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed—we think. We will find out."

Despite the partial US government shutdown, sparked by a feud over funding for a border wall with Mexico between President Donald Trump and opposition Democrats, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine vowed that the US space agency would broadcast the flyby.

Normally, NASA TV and NASA's website would go dark during a government shutdown.

NASA will also provide updates about another spacecraft, called OSIRIS-REx, that will enter orbit around the asteroid Bennu on New Year's Eve, Bridenstine said.

Explore further: NASA spacecraft hurtles toward historic New Year's flyby

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7 comments

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dsylvan
3 / 5 (2) Dec 31, 2018
@NASA
"Ultima Thule means 'beyond Thule'—beyond the borders of the known world..."

If someday we get to fly by an object even farther out, should we shorten this one's name to just "Thule" and name the new object "Ultima Thule"? :D
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
3 / 5 (4) Jan 01, 2019
Yes
I think it's called "looking forward" or something like that.
But where is the update? Is NASA still not giving out the images due to the US government shutdown? They probably have the images, but are reluctant to let the public know, so that they can blame the government shutdown.
Oh well!!!
Da Schneib
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 01, 2019
So the psychotic child molester @SEU still has the balls to post here?

What a sick puppy. Tell us some more about how the telepathic aliens are running NASA.

BTW, how's the whole government shutdown thing working out for TSA?
Da Schneib
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 01, 2019
This is gonna be fun. I love trolling trolls by their own methods. Say some more stuff I can turn back on you, psychotic torture murderer child molester @SEU.

Noticed you didn't have anything to say about TSA not being paid because your butt buddy the giant orange anus is pretending it didn't say "The Mexicans will pay for the wall" after it shut down the gummint because the Democrats wouldn't pay for it either.
MrBojangles
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 02, 2019
But where is the update? Is NASA still not giving out the images due to the US government shutdown? They probably have the images, but are reluctant to let the public know, so that they can blame the government shutdown. Oh well!!!


No you ignorant ass, images were released today. They are not being held hostage for political reasons, you can safely remove your tinfoil hat now.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
not rated yet Jan 02, 2019
What an energetic showman Alan Stern is! The flyby is interesting and they got more data out of it than earlier expected (the late stage accretion dynamics) but as for scope the recent ALMA data is likely more revealing on system formation. (As they captured examples of systems with wide planetary zones and gas giants like ours.)

So more contact binaries and reddish hue reminding of Sagan's radiation induced organic "tholins"!? Also pretty good data on "pristine conditions". (More or less independent constraints of orbit elements from disperse disk, low energy contact binary from disperse disk, unresolved small or no craters from disperse disk, presumably organic tholins from outer disk processes billions of years of undisturbed radiation exposure.) Nice to see the comet data (and old astrobiology) being predictive on the Kuiper Belt Objects! Hopefully the project will get their future 3d pass and make sure/upset the current data.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
not rated yet Jan 02, 2019
@NASA
"Ultima Thule means 'beyond Thule'—beyond the borders of the known world..."

If someday we get to fly by an object even farther out, should we shorten this one's name to just "Thule" and name the new object "Ultima Thule"? :D


Its official name ios 2014 MU69 and it is unlikely it will be named anything else. (Since the project name indicates the farthest object which it is not, the binary name does not follow the IAU conventions - which Stern is conditioned to oppose as they demoted Pluto *after* he launched his opportunist probe - and it is one object among millions like it.)

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