The outer solar system is a quiet place. But for a small city the size of the small town will be a little less quiet on New Year's Day, because spacecraft sent from Earth more than a decade ago will visit.
This deserted stone is called Ultima Thule, and it is the target for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which flies past Pluto in July 2015. If everything goes according to plan, a historic trip will take place on 1 January 2019. "This is the most exploratory far from the world in history, "said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, principal scientist in the mission. "This will be a truly record setting."
At a distance of 6.6 billion kilometers (4.1 billion miles) from the Sun, Ultima is found in the outer region of the Sun known as the Kuiper Belt, a ring of objects that are basically rocky debris and ice left over from the formation of planets. planet in our solar system. However, Ultima is special, because we believe it was formed there.
Other objects in the Kuiper Belt, which extend from 30 to 50 times the distance of the Earth-Sun (30 to 50 Astronomical Units, or AU), form close to giant planets before migrating further. But because it originates right on the Belt, Ultima is probably part of the pure material left over from our infancy 4.6 billion years ago. However, the cloth is shrouded in mystery, because the distance is very far and the size is small. We only know a little about that, with most of our data coming from the view of a remote telescope and the occultation of stars – moments where it passes in front of distant stars and casts shadows on Earth.
We know it's red. We know the distance is about 30 kilometers (19 miles), and we know it has a reflectivity of around ten percent, similar to the dirt in your garden. "That's really about that," said Stern. "Compared to Pluto, this is an open book."
Ultima, located 1.6 billion kilometers (1 billion miles) outside Pluto, was chosen as the next target for the New Horizon in August 2015. Initially designated as 2014 MU69, it was later dubbed Ultima Thule, which means "outside the known world border " New Horizons is scheduled to fly past the closest distance of 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles), more than three times closer than those heading to Pluto.
The spacecraft will use a series of seven instruments and cameras to study objects on a configured routine, including playing back to take pictures from the other side as it flies at speeds of 50,700 kilometers (31,500 miles) per hour.
One of the most interesting questions about Ultima Thule is its shape. We think it is binary – two objects and not one – but what is not clear is whether these two objects orbit each other, or whether they touch. The latter is called binary contact, similar to Comet 67P orbiting by the Rosetta ESA spacecraft in 2014, although Ultima is 1,000 times larger.
What is also interesting is how much Ultima we actually see. We don't know how fast it rotates, but this rotational rate will determine how many objects are illuminated by the Sun as it passes through the New Horizons horizon. On Pluto, with a rotation rate of 6.4 days, we could only see half the sun during the flyby. "If it's only a few hours, then we will have a pretty good image of everything," said Stern. "If it's a slow rotator, say a day or more, we will only be close to one side on the day we fly, and we will never know what the other side looks like."
Approach the closest spacecraft to the object scheduled at 05:33 GMT on January 2. But the action will begin the day before on December 31, when we will get a rough image of an object only six pixels taken from half a million miles away. This will be enough to reveal the form of Ultima. At night on January 1, we will get the image back with a width of 10,000 pixels. On January 2, there will be one that has 40,000 pixels. And then in 2019, after the primary data has been downloaded, we will have magnificent high-resolution images with one megapixel width.
With 12 hours of communication time between Earth and spacecraft, the team has prioritized data that will be sent back first in accordance with the main objectives of mission science. This will return around 50GB of total data to Earth for 20 months, comparable to Pluto's flyby, with the latest data arriving in September 2020.
Group 1 data, most importantly, will be the first. These include the Ultima Thule surface image, the composition of its surface, and look for moons or small rings that orbit it. Group 2 data, which includes measuring the temperature of an object and looking for signs of an atmosphere, will come next. Group 3 data will be the last to arrive.
Even as this latest data arrives, there may be more excitement to come. Because after September 2020, depending on how much fuel is left, the team will see the possibility of visiting other objects in the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons is not set to leave the region until 2028, with enough power to survive until 2038.
However, before that, all the attention was on Ultima Thule. And the team will expect all their hard work paid off. "We have put our heart and soul to try to plan and test it," said Stern. "But there is no reserve. There is no turning back and turning back. It's just a new horizon."
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