NASA Spaceship Closes in on Distant World

NASA Spaceship Closes in on Distant World

NASA Spaceship Closes in on Distant World

As you can see, anyone who is staying up for the big ball to drop and kick off the new year on the East Coast will only have to wait a little while to catch live coverage of the New Horizons spacecraft's close approach to Ultima Thule.

One billion miles beyond Pluto and an astounding 4 billion miles from Earth (1.6 billion kilometres and 6.4 billion kilometres), Ultima Thule will be the farthest world ever explored by humankind.

It was back in August that NASA showed off images from its New Horizons spacecraft which had just spotted its next flyby target sitting a whopping 100 million miles away.

If you want your New Year celebrations to be truly out of this world, then you might consider stopping by the New Horizons website. It is most notable for being the first human-made object to ever visit Pluto in the summer of 2015. Flying beyond Pluto, the spacecraft will whish into the space streaming to the ancient relic of the solar system. It was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Already there is reason to believe something odd lies just around the corner. It's next mission was to fly past a rock officially called 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule.

"It's estimated to have a diameter of 30 kilometres right now, " Pelletier said.

After a "health status check" on the spacecraft, more images will start to appear January 2 and in the first week of the new year, which will tell whether Ultima Thule is sporting any rings, satellites or an atmosphere. The New Horizons team will have only one chance to do a flyby. It could be something around 35 degrees Kelvin over absolute zero. NASA was still scanning Ultima for moons and rings in mid-December before committing to a flyby that will take New Horizons three times closer than it came to Pluto. It took 4 1/2 hours, each way, for flight controllers at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, to get a message to or from New Horizons at Pluto.

What's next for New Horizons?

The name Ultima Thule itself means "beyond the borders of the known world" so the expedition of New Horizon into space is most probably going to reveal stunning data as part of the most distant exploration till date. The spacecraft is now travelling through space at 32,000 miles per hour so it will be impossible to turn the spacecraft around in case of a mistake.

We can make some inferences based on what we know about the Kuiper Belt, though.

The distances involved are so huge that transmitted data takes two days to reach to Earth. Researchers are exhibiting an incredible interest in the frozen chunk as said to be existing from the earliest day of the solar system.

The spacecraft's closest approach to this primitive space rock comes January 1 at 12:33 a.m. ET (0533 GMT). There has never been a flyby of an object to this distant before in the history.

"To me, that is what's most exciting-this is pure exploration and fundamental science". Compensating for that somewhat is that the dim sunlight in the Kuiper Belt left it past the "snow line" for a variety of gasses, meaning those gasses froze out to form particles.

"The Ultima Thule flyby is going to be fast, it's going to be challenging, and it's going to yield new knowledge", Stern wrote on the New Horizons blog.

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