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NASA probe sails toward historic New Year airfare


NASA is about to make history again on New Year's Day

NASA is about to make history again on New Year's Day

NASA is about to make history again on New Year's Day

A NASA spacecraft is on its way to a historic New Year's Day passage of the planetary furthest object ever studied, a frozen relic of the ancient solar system called Ultima Thule.

Four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away, the unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is set to zoom in at 12:33 (0533 GMT) on Jan. 1, at a distance of only 2,200 miles ( 3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule.

That is more than three times closer than New Horizons reached Pluto when it was closed by the dwarf planet in 2015.

So what is this strange object, which has the name of a mythical island from the far north of medieval literature and has its own rock anthem played by Queen guitarist Brian May?

"This is actually the most primitive object ever found by a spacecraft," said Hal Weaver, a project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Relatively small, scientists are not sure about its exact size.

But they believe it is about 100 times smaller than Pluto, which measures nearly 2,400 kilometers in diameter.

Ultima Thule is also in a frozen area of ​​space, suggesting that it can remain well preserved.

"It really is a relic of the formation of the solar system," Weaver said.

– & # 39; Attic & # 39; of the solar system –

Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) is in the Kuiper Belt, a vast cosmic disc reminiscent of the days when the planets first formed.

Astronomers sometimes call this the "attic" of the solar system.

Scientists did not even know that the Kuiper belt existed until the 1990s.

The Kuiper Belt begins about three billion kilometers (4.8 billion kilometers) beyond the Sun, beyond the orbit of Neptune, which is the farthest planet from the Sun.

"It is filled with billions of comets, millions of objects like Ultima, which are called planetesimals, the building blocks from which the planets were formed, and a handful of continent-sized dwarf planets like Pluto," he said. Alan Stern, principal investigator at New Horizons.

"It is important to us in planetary science because this region of the solar system, being so far from the Sun, preserves the original conditions of four and a half billion years ago," added Stern.

"So when we fly through the Ultima, we can see how things were in the beginning."

– High speed, next meeting –

The New Horizons spacecraft is accelerating through space at 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, traveling nearly a million miles a day.

At this rate, if you hit a piece of debris as small as a rice ball, the spacecraft could be destroyed instantly.

"We do not want that to happen," Stern said.

If New Horizon survives this overflight, it will do so while furiously taking hundreds of photos of Ultima Thule, hoping to reveal its form and geology for the first time.

New Horizons sent back impressive images of Pluto – including a heart shape never seen before on its surface – in 2015.

This time, "in the closest approximation, we will try to imagine Ultima in three times the resolution we had for Pluto," said Stern.

But the overflight "requires extremely accurate navigation – much more accurate than we've tried before – we can get it, and maybe we do not," Stern added.

– Answers to come? –

Ultima Thule was first discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.

Scientists have discovered in 2017 that Ultima Thule is not spherical, but possibly elongated in shape. It may even be two objects.

It does not project the repeated pulsating light that scientists expect to see from a rotating cosmic object, raising intriguing questions.

Could it be surrounded by cosmic dust? Involved by many tiny moons? Oriented in such a way that your pole is facing the approaching spacecraft?

NASA hopes that the overfly reveals the answers.

The first images are expected for the night of January 1, with release scheduled for January 2.

More, higher resolution shots should follow.

Although no live image is possible from this distance, NASA plans to broadcast on-line during the flyby by featuring an animated video and music by Queen Brian May's guitarist who is a graduate of astrophysics and is launching a musical tribute to accompany the event .

"I was inspired by the idea that this is the furthest Man's Hand has ever achieved," May said.

And Stern hopes this is not the end for New Horizons, which was released in 2006 and is powered by plutonium.

"We are hoping to hunt another KPO (Kuiper Belt Object) by making an even more distant flyby in the 2020s," Stern said.

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