Follow NASA’s New Horizons Mission as It Heads for New Year’s Flyby With Ultima Thule


LAUREL, Md. — NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto in 2015, will zip past another icy world nicknamed Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day, gathering information on what is believed to be a pristine fragment from the earliest days of the solar system. It will be the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

As 2019 dawns on the East Coast of the United States, New Horizons will pass within about 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule, speeding at 31,500 m.p.h.

“It’s on course, it’s healthy, it’s conducting observations as we speak and it’s going to arrive on time,” said S. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the mission, during a news conference on Monday afternoon.

Though it is a NASA spacecraft, the New Horizons mission is operated by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. Coverage of the flyby will be broadcast on the lab’s website and YouTube channel as well as NASA TV. On Twitter, updates will appear on @NewHorizons2015, the account maintained by Dr. Stern, and on NASA’s @NASANewHorizons account. Or watch the countdown to the flyby in the video player below:

While the scientists will celebrate the moment of flyby as if it were New Year’s, they will have no idea how the mission is actually going at that point. The spacecraft, busy making its science observations, will not turn to send a message back to Earth until a few hours later. Then it will take six hours for that radio signal, traveling at the speed of light, to reach Earth.

Every time a spacecraft visits an asteroid or a comet, planetary scientists talk about how it is a precious time capsule from the solar system’s baby days when the planets were forming. That is true, but especially true for Ultima Thule.

Asteroids around the solar system have collided with each other and broken apart. Comets partially vaporize each time they pass close to the sun. But Ultima Thule may have instead been in a deep freeze the whole time, perhaps essentially pristine since it formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Yes, NASA is one of the agencies affected by the partial federal government shutdown, and most NASA employees are currently furloughed. However, missions in space, including New Horizons, are considered essential activities. (It would be a shame if NASA had to throw away spacecraft costing hundreds of millions of dollars.)

NASA will not be issuing news releases, but the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory public affairs staff will get the news out, and on Friday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine indicated that the agency would continue providing information on New Horizons as well as Osiris-Rex, a mission that is exploring a near-earth asteroid, Bennu.

Because New Horizons is so far away, its radio signal is weak, and the data will trickle back over the next 20 months. At the same time, it will make observations of other objects in the Kuiper belt to compare with Ultima Thule.

The spacecraft has enough propellant left to possibly head to a third target, but that depends on whether there is anything close enough along its path. Astronomers, busy with Ultima Thule, have yet to start that new search.

Beyond that, New Horizons will continue heading out of the solar system. Powered by a plutonium power source, it will take data and communicate home with Earth for perhaps another 20 years, headed out of the solar system. However, it is not moving quite as fast as the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft that have now both entered interstellar space, so it is unclear whether New Horizons will make a similar crossing before its power runs out.



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