NASA Tracking Flyby Of Most Distant Space Expedition In Human History

A billion miles past Pluto, at 12:33 a.m. EST tonight on New Year's Day, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will swoop in close to the most distant object humans will have ever visited.

New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million mission launched in 2006, was due to collect data for four hours after the flyby.

"The Ultima Thule flyby has all of these!"

"Everything we are going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things - are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system". Some of their only information about its size and shape comes from a series of coordinated observations last summer, when astronomers measured the shadow it cast as it passed in front of a star.

Scientists say there are two possibilities: Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another.

Ultima Thule is the first destination to be reached that was not even known until after the spacecraft's launch.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, center, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., celebrates with other mission team members after they received signals from the New Horizons spacecraft that it is healthy and collected data during the flyby of Ultima Thule, at the Mission Operations Center at the APL in Laurel, Md, January 1, 2019. "To me, this milestone for New Horizons is full of everything that NASA and NASA science is about". The amount of light it gives off is completely flat, and mission team doesn't know why!

"I can't believe what we're going to see". The name Ultima Thule was chosen through a nickname campaign hosted by the New Horizons team. Or, it could be due to something completely unexpected!

In August 2018, the spacecraft was finally able to capture apixel-wide image of its next target.

"We know it's not round", John Spencer, a New Horizons deputy project scientist, told reporters today (Mon, Dec 31).

Ultima is in what's termed the Kuiper belt, which is a band of frozen material that orbits the Sun far beyond even the dwarf planet Pluto. That flyby revealed that even little Pluto, more than three billion miles from the sun, is an active world with shifting plains, glaciers and mountains that reach up to about 15,000 feet.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth.

Based on these two factors, this object could be a pristine piece of the early solar system, which formed at its current location, and thus was not tossed around by the gravity of the other planets (looking at YOU, Neptune), and has possibly gone completely (or almost completely) untouched for over 4.5 billion years.

What scientists hope to gather from what the ship will be sending back is an insight into how the solar system was formed.


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