“We’ve never explored a body as primordial or as far away from the sun as Ultima Thule,” said Mohamed Ramy El Maarry, a New Horizons science team collaborator and lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. “This gives us a chance to look at what comets are like before they enter the inner solar system. They’ve been in deep freeze since they formed 4.6bn years ago.”
He added: “What’s really exciting is we expect to see surprises. We are really looking at the basic ingredients of the solar system. This can tell us a lot about the building blocks of the solar system, about the conditions when the solar system formed, and about other solar systems as well.”
The first images to be beamed home from Ultima Thule will be small and grainy, but a day or two after the encounter, Nasa hopes to have more impressive pictures from the probe. “This is the first time we’ll fly past a cold classical Kuiper belt object and really see what it looks like,” said Weaver. “We’re taking our first steps into this whole new zone of the solar system. We’re on our way.”
Bowman said: “We can build a spacecraft on Earth, and we send it out billions of miles away from Earth, and it sends us back all this wonderful data that we get to look at and learn more about our world, our solar system.
“There’s a bit of all of us on that spacecraft that will just continue after we’re long gone here on Earth.”
NASA's New Horizons Spies Elongated Target Ultima Thule Ahead of Flyby
Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima's shape. The original images have a pixel size of 6 miles (10 kilometers), not much smaller than Ultima's estimated size of 20 miles (30 km), so Ultima is only about 3 pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). New Horizons was approximately 1.2 million miles (1.9 million km) from Ultima when this image was taken on Dec. 30, 2018.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
LAUREL, Md. — After months of staring at only a single pixel of their target, members of NASA's New Horizons mission team now have considerably more to look at. On the eve of its
historic flyby, the spacecraft has sent home an image that confirms its distant target, Ultima Thule, has an elongated shape.
"We know it's not round," John Spencer, a New Horizons deputy project scientist, told reporters today (Mon, Dec 31).
Although the image provided a new look at Ultima Thule, it lacks detail. For example, the mission team still cannot tell whether Ultima is a single or binary object. [
New Horizons' Historic Flyby of Ultima Thule: Full Coverage]
"We just don't have the details to see it yet," added Spencer, who is based at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado.
When New Horizons launched in 2006, it had Pluto in its sights. After the July 2015 flyby of that dwarf planet, the spacecraft had enough fuel to visit at least one more object. The Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69,
nicknamed Ultima Thule, was selected partly because it was close enough for the spacecraft to visit before it ran out of fuel.
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. As a result, Ultima Thule wasn't even discovered until 2014. By studying how the KBO blocked the light streaming toward Earth from
three distant stars, astronomers could tease out a little more information about its shape, as well as its path around the sun. But until it came into New Horizons' view, Ultima remained little more than a distant dot hardly different from the stars behind it.
In August 2018, the spacecraft was finally able to capture a
pixel-wide image of its next target. In the newly released image, which the team received on Sunday (Dec. 30), Ultima is a few pixels wide. A processed version of the raw photo shows the object as an elongated blob.
"There's a lot of chatter in the science team room," Spencer said. "We're doing everything we can with so little information."
But the science team members on stage declined to speculate about Ultima's true nature.
"We know that anything we say is going to be wrong tomorrow," Spencer said. The team is expecting the images that will come down in the coming days to be far more intricate, with the most-detailed image being distributed on Thursday (Jan. 3).
That doesn't mean the team isn't giving the new image their full attention.
"I've never seen so many people so excited about two pixels," Stern said, his face advertising his own excitement.
"We've only ever had one pixel before," Spencer added.
New year, New Horizons: NASA probe flies by distant Ultima Thule
January 1, 2019
— NASA entered the new year with a new horizon, the farthest-ever encounter with a planetary object.
The agency's New Horizons probe, which in 2015 was the first to zip past Pluto, flew by the even more distant small world "Ultima Thule" (officially 2014 MU69) on New Year's Day (Tuesday, Jan. 1). It was the first close pass by a spacecraft of a Kuiper Belt object, one of the primordial building blocks of the planets in our solar system. Mission managers and scientists, together with their family members and invited guests at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, joined in a New Year's Eve-style countdown to the flyby's closest approach, just 33 minutes after doing the same to welcome in 2019. "5, 4, 3, 2, 1... go New Horizons!" exclaimed Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission. "Go New Horizons! Woohoo!" Traveling at about 32,000 miles per hour (14 kilometers per second), the New Horizons probe came within about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule (pronounced "Ultima Too-lee") at 12:33 a.m. EST (0533 GMT). The spacecraft, which is about the size and shape of a baby grand piano, was programmed to record science data and capture images of the city-size world, of which little was known about in advance. "We hardly know anything about it, even after the three and a half years of chasing it down and studying it with the Hubble Space Telescope," said Stern at a pre-flyby press conference. "We have only been able to learn a few things about it. We know it is about 30 km [18 miles] in size. We know that it is red. We know its orbit very precisely." "We don't know much else, other than it has an irregular shape. That is all going to change because New Horizons is bringing these amazing sensors there," he said. The flyby, which took place at a distance of about 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km) from Earth and about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) further out from the orbit of Pluto, took only seconds to complete, but New Horizons will need the next 20 months to transmit the seven gigabytes of data it was expected to collect at about 1,000 bits per second. Radio signals from the spacecraft take more than six hours to traverse the distance from the Kuiper Belt to Earth. The first close images are expected to be released on Wednesday (Jan. 2). Prior to the flyby, the best that New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was able to capture rendered Ultima Thule at only two pixels wide, which was an improvement over the single point of light that had been the only available view since Ultima was discovered in 2014. New Horizons flew past Ultima Thule at an approach that was about three times closer than it had been to Pluto on July 14, 2005. Using its seven on board science instruments, New Horizons was pre-programmed to to collect geological, geophysical, compositional and plasma data on Ultima. It was also to search for any satellites (or moons), rings and atmosphere around the body. The data may help answer some of scientists' key questions about the formation of planets, as well as the nature of "cold classical" Kuiper Belt objects that follow circular orbits in the same plane as the planets. "We want to understand how objects like Ultima were assembled," Stern said. "There are two basic theories for how the building blocks for planets were assembled. In one case, you put objects together piece by piece. And then in the other theory, they are built by a hail storm of pebbles, boulders and other types of particles. Depending on whether we see a heterogeneous object or a monolithic object, we might be able to find out which of those theories is correct." The New Horizons spacecraft launched from Earth on Jan. 19, 2006. Following its encounter with Pluto nine years later, the spacecraft was assigned the extended mission to explore the Kuiper Belt, study distant Kuiper Belt objects, heliospheric dust and plasma science as far out as 50 times the distance from Earth to the Sun through 2021. New Horizons' flyby of Ultima Thule, history's first encounter with an object that was discovered after the mission to it began, continues a 60-year legacy of NASA pioneering space exploration. "I think it is fitting that this flyby of Ultima Thule is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of [the launch of the first American satellite] Explorer 1 in 2018 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 [the first moon landing mission] in 2019. To me this milestone for New Horizons is full everything that NASA and NASA science is all about," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Associate Administrator for Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email to Stern. "Fifty years ago, the first humans walked on a different world, the moon, as a result of NASA," said Stern. "And NASA was actually the first space agency to reach every planet in the solar system, from the closest planets, Venus and Mars, to the farthest, Pluto. And now we are out there going even farther."
A new image of Ultima Thule recorded by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reveals the elongated shape of the most distant object ever visited. CreditJHUAPL/SWRI/NASA
Queen’s rock-star astrophysicist Brian May debuts his space anthem for a far-out trip
Brian May, who is the lead guitarist for the rock group Queen as well as a Ph.D. astrophysicist, shows off his New Horizons mission patch during a Q&A with journalists. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)
LAUREL, Md. — After you’ve participated in NASA’s New Horizons mission to the edge of the solar system, and written a rock anthem for the mission as well, what is there left to do? For Brian May, the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen who went on to
earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics, maybe it’s taking a trip to space.
“I’m probably too old to do that,” the 71-year-old British rocker said at first. “A little too old in the tooth to do that.”
Then, after a moment of reflection, he changed his tune.
“I probably still would like to, yeah,” he said. “I don’t really fancy the idea of going up and having a few seconds and then coming back down again. That doesn’t appeal to me. What appeals to me more is, for instance, the ISS [International Space Station], where you can go up there and you sit there and contemplate the world which you were born on, and watch it turn underneath you.”
He also might fancy a trip around the moon, like the one that
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa plans to take on SpaceX’s Starship in the 2020s.
“How incredible would that be?” he said here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory during a Q&A with journalists. “I’ve been lucky enough to meet a number of the men who walked on the moon, and they all, I think, have a spiritual quality which is beyond what any of us have understood.”
Hours later, May took the wraps off a song that he wrote to celebrate New Horizons’ flyby past Ultima Thule, an icy object more than 4 billion miles from Earth. May said he wrote the song in response to a request from Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator.
May joked that he wasn’t immediately sold on the idea, “because I can’t think of anything that rhymes with ‘Ultima Thule.’ ”
But he quickly embraced the idea of writing a rock song that paid tribute to explorers of the farthest frontiers, including the New Horizons spacecraft. “This has gone way beyond where anyone else has gone before,” May said.
May teased the song in a smattering of sample clips on Instagram over the weeks leading up to New Horizons’ flyby, but tonight’s music video marked the first performance of the entire album. It incorporates a
sound bite from the late physicist Stephen Hawking, who once said “the revelations of New Horizons may help us to understand better how our solar system was formed.”
Now that the song has made its debut, it will be made available via iTunes, YouTube and other streaming outlets, May said.
So what about coming up with that rhyme for “Ultima Thule”? May said he still shies away from that challenge.
“Think I would go and make a fool-ee of myself?” he asked.
Other riffs from Brian May:
May stressed that he was attending this week’s festivities as a scientist rather than a rock star. “I’m not here as a celebrity,” he said. “I’m here to work, and I love it.” His specialty is creating 3-D images of astronomical objects, including the Rosetta mission’s view of
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and New Horizons’ view of Pluto — and he’s hoping the Ultima Thule flyby will yield a fresh batch of stereoscopic images. 3-D imagery is more than a scientific interest of May’s. “My spirit is kind of anchored in Victorian times,” he said. That’s why he has revived the
London Stereoscopic Company, which was famous in the 19th century for its stereoscopic scenes of London. May has created his own 3-D viewing system, known as the Owl viewer, and makes use of the technology in two recently published books: “Queen in 3-D” and “Mission Moon 3-D.” May says he’s happy with the way he was portrayed in
“Bohemian Rhapsody,”the film about Queen and its flamboyant lead vocalist, the late Freddie Mercury. May had warm words of praise for the actor who played May’s part, Gwilym Lee — particularly for his ability to mimic May’s voice. “He even fooled my kids,” May said. The way May tells it, his children were sure that his own voice had been dubbed into the movie.
New Horizons: Nasa probe survives flyby of Ultima Thule
Alan Stern and Alice Bowman celebrate the arrival of New Horizons' signal
The US space agency's New Horizons probe has made contact with Earth to confirm its successful flyby of the icy world known as Ultima Thule.
The encounter occurred some 6.5bn km (4bn miles) away, making it the most distant ever exploration of an object in our Solar System.
New Horizons acquired gigabytes of photos and other observations during the pass.
It will now send these home over the coming months.
The radio message from the robotic craft was picked up by one of Nasa's big antennas, in Madrid, Spain.
It had taken fully six hours and eight minutes to traverse the great expanse of space between Ultima and Earth.
A good, clear signal was picked up by the radio antenna system in Spain
Controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland greeted the reception of the signal with cheers and applause.
"We have a healthy spacecraft," announced Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman. "We've just accomplished the most distant flyby."
This first radio message contained only engineering information on the status of the spacecraft, but it included confirmation that New Horizons executed its autonomous flyby observations as instructed and that the probe's onboard memory was full.
A later downlink on Tuesday will see some choice images returned to give scientists and the public a taster of what New Horizons saw through its cameras.
If there is one note of caution it is that the timing and orientation of the spacecraft had to be spot on if the probe was not to shoot pictures of empty space! As a result, there'll continue to be some anxiety until the data can be examined.
"The highest resolution images taken at closest approach required perfect pointing, almost," said Project Scientist Hal Weaver. "We think, based on everything we've seen so far, that was achieved."
Ultima is in what's termed the Kuiper belt - the band of frozen material that orbits the Sun more than 2 billion km further out than the eighth of the classical planets, Neptune; and 1.5 billion km beyond even the dwarf planet Pluto which New Horizons visited in 2015.
It's estimated there are hundreds of thousands of Kuiper members like Ultima, and their frigid state almost certainly holds clues to the formation conditions of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.
The vast separation between New Horizons and Earth, coupled with the probe's small, 15-watt transmitter, mean data rates are glacial, however.
They top out at 1 kilobit per second. To retrieve all of the imagery stored on the probe is therefore expected to take until September 2020.
The first of the very highest resolution pictures are not expected on Earth until February. But this wouldn't delay the science, said Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
"The [lower resolution] images that come down this week will already reveal the basic geology and structure of Ultima for us, and we're going to start writing our first scientific paper next week," he told reporters.
Even just the final picture released from the approach phase to the flyby contained tantalising information. Ultima appears in it as just a blob, but immediately it has allowed researchers to refine their estimate of the object's size - about 35km by 15km.
What's so special about the Kuiper belt?
Several factors make Ultima Thule, and the domain in which it moves, so interesting to scientists.
One is that the Sun is so dim in this region that temperatures are down near 30-40 degrees above absolute zero. As a result, chemical reactions have essentially stalled. This means Ultima is in such a deep freeze that it is probably perfectly preserved in the state in which it formed.
Another factor is that Ultima is small (about 30km across), and this means it doesn't have the type of "geological engine" that in larger objects will rework their composition.
And a third factor is just the nature of the environment. It's very sedate in the Kuiper belt.
Unlike in the inner Solar System, there are probably very few collisions between objects. The Kuiper belt hasn't been stirred up.
Alan Stern said: "Everything that we're going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology, to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere, and that kind of thing - is going to teach us about the original formation conditions in the Solar System that all the other objects we've gone out and orbited, flown by and landed on can't tell us because they're either large and evolve, or they are warm. Ultima is unique."
Media captionWhere is Ultima Thule? BBC Science Editor David Shukman explains What does New Horizons do next?
First, the scientists must work on the Ultima data, but they will also ask Nasa to fund a further extension to the mission.
The hope is that the course of the spacecraft can be altered slightly to visit at least one more Kuiper belt object sometime in the next decade.
New Horizons should have just enough fuel reserves to be able to do this. Critically, it should also have sufficient electrical reserves to keep operating its instruments into the 2030s.
The longevity of New Horizon's plutonium battery may even allow it to record its exit from the Solar System.
The two 1970s Voyager missions have both now left the heliosphere - the bubble of gas blown off our Sun (one definition of the Solar System's domain). Voyager 2 only recently did it, in November.
And in case you were wondering, New Horizons will never match the Voyagers in terms of distance travelled from Earth. Although New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched in 2006, it continues to lose ground to the older missions. The reason: the Voyagers got a gravitational speed boost when they passed the outer planets. Voyager-1 is now moving at almost 17km/s; New Horizons is moving at 14km/s.
NASA starts new year with flyby of most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft
NASA rang in the new year with a flyby near an icy planetary body roughly 1 billion miles away from Pluto — making it the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.
NASA confirmed Tuesday the spacecraft – New Horizons – completed its flight past Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. on January 1.
"This is what leadership in space exploration is all about," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a post to Twitter. He also said New Horizons is the first spacecraft to directly explore an object "that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system."
Ultima Thule, which sits in the Kuiper Belt, about 4 billion miles away from Earth, is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another. A single body is more likely, they noted. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once better, closer pictures arrive.
Team members and guest at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory gathered to celebrate both the New Year and the expected flyby of New Horizons, which launched in 2006.
The mission marked the first reconnaissance of Pluto, completing its closest approach to the planet in 2015. NASA said the goal of the New Horizons mission is to explore Pluto and Kuiper Belt to study "the origins and outskirts of our solar system."
Last week, Bridenstine confirmed the agency's social media accounts would be active despite a partial government shutdown.
"It's the farthest exploration of worlds in history and without NASA able to get the word out, I think it's going to be very much diminished for the public and that's an unintended consequence of this shutdown," New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern told Florida Today.
Quelle: USA Today
The Most Distant Word Ever Visited by a Spacecraft! Ultima Thule (2014 MU69) as seen by New Horizons spacecraft.
My new sketch of ’s small Kuiper Belt object, ! It’s a glimpse into the discussions going on behind the scenes: what do the shapes and colors mean and what geologic processes are at play? We will soon find out!
Cosmic collision created ‘snowman’ MU 69 — the farthest world ever explored
Close-up images from NASA’s New Horizons probe show that space rock has two distinct lobes.
Images captured by NASA's New Horizons probe show the two distinct lobes of space rock 2014 MU69.Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
It’s a snowman! The latest images from NASA’s fly-by of space rock 2014 MU
69 — the most distant world ever visited by humanity — reveal that it has two asymmetrical lobes.
The space agency’s New Horizons spacecraft captured the close-ups of MU
69 on 1 January, before it whizzed just 3,500 kilometres above the object’s surface. The rock is a ‘contact binary’, formed by the gentle merger of two objects.
“It’s really, really cool,” says Sarah Hörst, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “I was a little nervous it would be boring. It’s not.”
Contact binaries consist of two roughly similar-sized objects resting on one another, presumably after coming together very gently. The
rubber-duck-shaped comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft explored between 2014 and 2016, is probably a contact binary. Scratching the surface
69 is 31 kilometres long and 19 kilometres wide at its broadest point. The spot where its two lobes join is marked by a collar of material that is lighter in colour than the rest of the space rock. That might indicate the material there is of a different chemical composition, or a different grain size. Small grains are more reflective than larger ones.
Data collected during the fly-by confirm that MU
69 is dark reddish, as scientists had suspected. The colour is probably a result of sunlight irradiating its icy surface for billions of years, says team member Carly Howett, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The brightest parts of its surface reflect about 13% of the Sun’s light, whereas the darkest reflect about 6% — making them as dark as potting soil.
So far, the New Horizons team has not spotted any impact craters on MU
69’s surface, although those might become apparent in higher-resolution images still being downloaded to Earth, says Jeff Moore, a planetary geologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Far out
At nearly 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, MU
69 is scientists’ most distant exploration target in the Kuiper belt, the realm of space rocks that orbit the Sun beyond Neptune. New Horizons visited its first Kuiper belt object, Pluto, in July 2015.
69 is special because it hails from an undisturbed part of the Solar System known as the cold classical Kuiper belt. Scientists think that objects there have been in a deep freeze since the Solar System formed, more than 4.5 billion years ago. Data from the MU 69 fly-by will give scientists their most direct look at these pristine relics of planetary formation.
“This is a perfect contact binary,” says Michele Bannister, a planetary astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast, UK. “Of all the hundreds of thousands of cold classicals out there, this is a gorgeous choice.”
Its two lobes probably formed as innumerable small particles swirled together and lumped into larger objects, two of which eventually coalesced into what scientists see today, says Moore. “These are the only remaining basic building blocks” of planets, he says.
Even as New Horizons scientists celebrated the first close-up images, they also came under fire over the rock’s nickname, Ultima Thule. The team chose it in March 2018, after a public naming contest.
Ultima Thule means ‘beyond the known world’ in Latin, and is commonly associated with the Arctic and exploration. But the Nazis also appropriated the phrase to describe the mythological homeland of the Aryan race, as
Newsweek pointed out last March. A retweet of that piece on 1 January drew attention to the Nazi associations.
Asked about the issue, Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, said that Ultima Thule has been used for centuries to describe far-off lands. “That’s why we chose it,” says Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute.
Like much of the US government, NASA remains shut down while Congress and President Donald Trump battle over federal spending and immigration policy. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where mission control is based, has taken over releasing the scientific images and data to the public until NASA reopens.
NASA's New Horizons Just Made the Most Distant Flyby in Space History. So, What's Next?
LAUREL, Md. — NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has completed its epic flyby of the most distant object ever explored, the recently-unveiled fossil from the beginning of the solar system, Ultima Thule. So what's next?
Although the Jan. 1 encounter is over, the mission is far from finished. New Horizons still has images of
Ultima Thule to send back, more of the Kuiper Belt to study, and the hope of one day leaving the solar system completely.
With the spacecraft safely past its target, a primary concern is its condition. After all, it can't send home data if it isn't functioning. Fortunately, health doesn't currently appear to be an issue. [
New Horizons at Ultima Thule: Full Coverage]
"Everything looks great," Mission Operation Manager Alice Bowman told the press after the flyby.
"We're definitely looking forward to getting down the science data so all of our scientists—and the world — can see what the origins of our solar system has to hold for us."
fleeting pass over Ultima Thule, New Horizons filled its hard drive with about 7 gigabytes of data about the tiny Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). With the observations complete, it must begin the arduous task of sending that data back home.
But before New Horizons can dig into the process, the spacecraft will be temporarily silenced by the sun. For a few brief days, from Jan. 4 to 9, the sun's atmosphere will block transmissions from New Horizons back to Earth. During that time, the science team will disperse, returning to their homes for a few days of downtime.
As soon as spacecraft clears the sun, the researchers will return to consuming each day's new data, working remotely in several small teams and meeting back together again at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Maryland on Jan. 15.
They won't be hanging around Maryland the whole time, however. At about 1,000 bits per second, it will take roughly 20 months to send home all of the newly-collected data about Ultima Thule. Eventually, they'll head home again, meeting remotely and occasionally in person to discuss their discoveries.
The arrival of the images and information is highly prioritized, according to principle investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado.
"Even though the spacecraft has performed perfectly now for almost 13 years, there's always the chance that something could go amiss," Stern told the press after the flyby.
Information about the highest priority objectives, such as the geology and composition, as well as the potential for rings or moons, will be beamed home first. Secondary goals pertaining to dust escape, craters, and physical surface properties will take second string.
Only once that information has been sent back will the lowest-priority and bonus objectives related to more detailed properties of any rings and moons, information about the mass and density, and extra compositional studies return to Earth.
The first few downlinks will contain a little bit of everything.
"We want to get data sets from each of the instruments on the ground," Bowman said.
According to Bowman, although
Ultima Thule is much smaller, New Horizons is collecting roughly the same amount of data as it retrieved at Pluto. But Ultima Thule is more than a billion miles farther from Earth than Pluto, so it takes even longer for the information to travel home.
All of it is relayed by a 15-watt radio transmitter whose weak signal is directed at Earth.
"I am in awe that we can even do this," Stern said about the communication process.
Extending the mission
New Horizons and Ultima Thule will be 4.1 billion miles away when it visits the Kuiper Belt object. This chart shows the path of New Horizons compared to other probes that have left the solar system.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
After buzzing Pluto in 2015, New Horizons began an extended mission, the highlight being the Ultima Thule flyby. But that's not the only goal of the spacecraft's next phase. It will continue to study the Kuiper Belt, the band of ice and rocks that makes up the third zone of the solar system, until at least April 2021 when its current mission funding ends.
The team is already looking towards a
"We expect to have plenty of fuel left when we finish Ultima Thule," Project Scientist Hal Weaver said before the flyby. "We'd like to try to find another KBO along the way."
The Kuiper Belt stretches from about 30 to about 55 astronomical units (AU), and Ultima Thule is smack in the middle of it. [An AU is the distance between Earth and the sun]. According to Stern, New Horizons will be in the Kuiper Belt until 2027 or 2028.
"It would be silly not to look for another target," Stern said.