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Ultima Thule: NASA probe finds a mystery on the way to the outer solar system

JA week before NASA's New Horizons mission reached the farthest object ever studied, mission scientists realized something that raised their eyebrows. The object they plan to tackle around New Year's Eve is behaving strangely – and by now they can only imagine why.

The New Horizons mission was first launched in 2006 as part of NASA's plan to study the remote and icy regions of our solar system. In 2015, New Horizons completed a six-month study of the dwarf planet Pluto, but New Horizons has always sought to probe deeper regions of the Kuiper Belt – an area beyond Neptune that NASA calls "a remnant region of the solar system ". In December, the team behind the project revealed that they are going deeper than they intend to approach an object called KBO 2014 MU69, or "Ultima Thule" which is about 4 billion miles from the sun.

But on Sunday, the project

The scientists noticed something strange about Ultima Thule: it was not reflecting the light the way you would expect it to be of such an object.

Ultima Thule NASA
An artist rendering of Ultima Thule, the object New Horizons will fly shortly after midnight on January 1, 2019.

"Ultima is guarding his secrets well, but we are approaching and the flight is only a week away."

Previous images of Ultima Thule have revealed that they are actually two objects that are attached to the hip or very close to each other. These objects reflect sunlight, you would expect light to pulsate as the foreign-shaped object rotates and the light reflects differently from it-these changes are also called the light curve. But Ultima Thule is not getting any lighter or darker as it turns.

So far, scientists have come up with three possible explanations behind the lost light curve. Marc Buie, Ph.D., an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute who collaborates on the New Horizon missions, suggested that it could just be a matter of guidance. He proposed that the Ultimate Thule rotational pole is only aimed at New Horizons, which would affect the amount of light actually reaching the spacecraft.

Mark Showalter, Ph.D., senior researcher at the Seti Institute, suggested that the object could simply be obscured by a cloud of dust. And finally, in a further explanation out there, an assistant scientist for the New Horizons project, Anne Verbiscer, Ph.D., added that Ultima Thule could be surrounded by "small moons falling", which could interfere with the light curve of Ultima Thule.

Which of these three ideas could it be? Alan Stern, Ph.D., the lead investigator for the project says Reverse you're not ready to throw your weight behind any of the ideas yet.

"We do not know which is more likely or if something else is happening. Ultima is guarding his secrets well, but we are approaching and we are only a week away."

How to watch Flyby during a government shutdown

Stern hopes to get some answers when the spacecraft gets close enough to see Ultima Thule. New Horizons will pass 2,200 miles from Ultima Thule approximately at 12:33 a.m. on New Year's Day. Meanwhile, he added that the team is working hard – even during Christmas Eve – preparing for the airfare. But, to a large extent, as Stern pointed out, the mission is proceeding as planned.

Kuiper Belt
The Kuiper belt, a donut-shaped area of ​​the outer solar system

The only change will be that we It will not be possible to watch the live coverage of the event on NASA TV because of the government shutdown, which began at midnight on December 21. Instead, Stern added that they will be broadcasting their coverage at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Youtube channel.

"The pace of activity here in mission control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory is intense and exciting," says Stern. "Mission operations, encounter operations, navigation operations and operations of scientific teams are all in parallel. We will soon know.

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