Spacecraft heads for world beyond Pluto

Frédéric Pelletier is guiding the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto

Frédéric Pelletier is guiding the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto

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.

New Horizons, which is best known for its unbelievable photos of Pluto in 2015, will mark a new beginning as it is heading towards a new adventure. Having long passed this distant planet, New Horizons has ventured into the Kuiper Belt looking for its next target.

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Until then, the New Horizons spacecraft continues speeding through space at 32,000 miles (51,500 kilometers) per hour, traveling nearly a million miles per day. Just seeing what's out in the Kuiper Belt - which is so far away that on a telescope it looks like a swarm of lightning bugs on a fuzzy black and white television - is a huge win for astronomers, but the prize discovery will come from Ultima Thule itself.

Already there is reason to believe something unusual lies just around the corner.

This suggests Ultima Thule could be two objects connected together, what's known as a contact binary, or two objects orbiting each other. It has a very small diameter of around 30 kilometers.

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.

"Because this is a flyby mission, we only have one chance to get it right", said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for New Horizons.

"Those temperatures should preserve the record of the formation of Ultima Thule very faithfully over all those billions of years", Dr Stern said. 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. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey. The flyby of Ultima Thule is being described by the space agency as the "farthest exploration of any planetary body in history". As early as January 1, images and data will be sent back to Earth from New Horizons and its suite of instruments and cameras about seven hours after that closest approach.

Call it the little spacecraft that could. change what we know about our galaxy. "No one knows", Stern wrote.

Indications that New Horizons survived the flyby-rather than running in to a small moon or ring-will have to wait for the roughly six hours it takes light to travel from the location of 2014 MU69, the target of its attentions. 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.

New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of January 1 - 12:33 a.m. EST. A flyby of an even more distant world could be in the offing in the 2020s, if NASA approves another mission extension and the spacecraft remains healthy.

Latest News