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Ring on the New Year with NASA's New Horizons | Science

At 12:33 EST on January 1, 2019, more than four billion miles from Earth, a NASA spacecraft launched in January 2006 will fly 2,200 miles from the body of an ancient planet, which orbits more than 40 times the distance from Earth. to Earth. sun and uninterrupted may be billions of years. The New Horizons flyby 2014 MU69, really nicknamed Ultima Thule for Latin phrases which mean outside the known world, not only will it be the most distant meeting of planets in human history, but that object will also be the most primitive world the spacecraft has ever visited.

When the clock chimes midnight on the east coast of the United States, you can listen to NASA TV to join a space agency in mission control at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, as the world celebrates the arrival of the New Horizon at Ultima Thule. Talks and presentations by the mission team members will begin today at 2:00 a.m. EST.

The New Horizons spacecraft completed its main mission on July 14, 2015, when carrying out Pluto's first close encounter. The fly reveals that even small Pluto, more than three billion miles from the sun, is an active world with shifting terrain, glaciers and mountains that reach around 15,000 feet. Hard water ice forms the bedrock in Pluto with ice softer on it, such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane.

The target of the next spacecraft, Ultima Thule, can contain more surprises. "We almost knew nothing about that," said Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, on APL.

Ultima Thule was only discovered in June 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope in an effort to find additional targets for the New Horizon in families far from the body outside Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt, the third region of the solar system. "Outside the terrestrial planets are giant planets, and outside the giant planets lies the Kuiper Belt," said Stern.

After being discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope, a series of observations on land were carried out to measure Ultima Thule during the occultation – when passing in front of the background star and blocking part of the starlight. It looked irregularly shaped, about 20 to 30 kilometers in diameter, and red. What types of ice and rocks make up the object will give planetary scientists the first example of the body of an ancient planet orbiting in this distant world. Instruments on New Horizons will create geological maps and compositions of Ultima Thule, as well as search for rings, debris, or even small satellites orbiting objects.

Maybe Ultima Thule is similar to a comet that follows an elliptical path that takes it close to the sun, only Ultima is never disturbed and thrown in by gravity encounters with Neptune or Uranus. Small bodies continue to orbit uninterrupted on a more circular path than comets, never closer than 42 Astronomical Units, or 42 times the average distance between the Earth and the sun.

At present, Ultima Thule is slightly more than one pixel of light on the New Horizon imaging instrument. Picture from object taken right before the meeting will grow for a few more pixels, transmitted back to Earth at speed of light in about six hours. THigh-resolution Ultima Thule images are scheduled to be received and re-released on Earth on Wednesday, January 2, truly revealing this distant body to the world for the first time.

"Being on the first mission of discovery when the point of light becomes a real place almost overnight is a very degrading experience to be part of," said Stern. "This is scientifically indescribable … To have the opportunity to lead this from the beginning through design and build and fly across the solar system, and now to our cornerstone in the Kuiper Belt, is a product of a lifetime, and that is something made of dream. "

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