NASA speeds toward historic flyby of faraway world, Ultima Thule

Зонд New Horizons достиг астероида на границе Солнечной системы

Ultima Thule, at 4 billion miles from the sun and and 1 billion miles from Pluto, will be the most distant object ever directly explored, according to NASA.

And rather than being like Pluto or the large planets in our solar system, Ultima Thule is a surviving planetary building block, primitive and pristine. During one of tonight's pre-flyby panels, he noted that NASA was spending $6 billion over the course of a decade on missions targeting small celestial bodies, including Ultima Thule as well as an assortment of asteroids.

NASA explorer New Horizons has traveled four billion miles from Earth and sent back the first blurry picture (image main taken on the spacecraft's approach) of Ultima Thule, an ancient icy object in the Kuiper Belt. Owing to the probe's great distance from Earth and the relative weakness of its signal, it took several hours for scientists to receive and process the image. Confirmation won't come for hours, though, given the vast distance.

But the new target is so far away and so faint that NASA's Hubble Space Telescope was the only instrument that could see it. "We've just accomplished the most distant flyby".

It may be that Ultima Thule is similar to comets that follow elliptical paths taking them close to the sun, only Ultima was never perturbed and flung inward by a gravitational encounter with Neptune or Uranus. Thule fly-by New Years Eve Party Even though the actual fly-by of Ultima Thule will occur a bit after midnight, on January 1, there will be a New Year's Eve party at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

But the encounter itself is risky, and if the spacecraft were to collide with a speck of space debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly, mission managers warned. "There are no second chances for New Horizons".

Nasa rang in the new year with a live online broadcast to mark the spacecraft's zoom past the mysterious object located in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.

The New Horizons probe is about the size of a grand piano.

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New Horizons first launched in 2006 with the goal of doing a flyby study of the Pluto system by 2015.

The encounter with Ultima Thule will be brief and technically demanding, even more so than New Horizons' Pluto flyby.

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we'll know how we did", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said during the news conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Brian has been "teasing" fragments of the track with specially adapted "New Horizons" video clips on his Instagram and Twitter feeds, as well on Brian's well-known "Bri's Soapbox" at BrianMay.com.

Based on its circular orbit, as opposed to the elliptical orbits of the planets, Ultima Thule formed 4 billion miles away in the middle of the Kuiper Belt.

Zurbuchen may well have yet another mission to juggle: In the months ahead, Stern and his colleagues hope to start laying plans for yet another New Horizons extension, to target another Kuiper Belt object that's yet to be identified.

For that reason, Stern said he and his colleagues were "on pins and needles to see how this turns out".

So what can we expect?

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