NASA's new Horizons probe will approach Ultima Thule in the New Year

Ultima Thule, or 2014 MU69, is a Transnetunian object (small body of the Solar system orbiting the sun at an average distance greater than that of Neptune) that will be, very soon, visited by the New Horizons probe

Ultima Thule, or 2014 MU69, is a Transnetunian object (small body of the Solar system orbiting the sun at an average distance greater than that of Neptune) that will be, very soon, visited by the New Horizons probe — the same as the nasasent to study Pluto and its moons. It is predicted that the probe will undergo Ultima Thule at the turn of the year, exactly.

In recent days, mission controllers have adjusted the trajectory of the ship so that it remains on the ideal path, with the result being an intimate overflight near this object that is still somewhat unknown to us. The overflight will take place on January 1, 2019, and then we will begin the year knowing much more about what is in the confines of the Solar system.

Currently, New Horizons flies at an impressive speed of 50,700 kilometers per hour — and any grain of dust the size of a grain of rice could destroy the ship altogether. So NASA's controllers needed to check everything that was on the probe's trajectory to ensure that no obstacle, as much as it was, was in its path. ADVERTISING 

With no threats detected, NASA then gave the green light to New Horizons heading for Ultima Thule. The probe will reach three times closer to the object than it was possible to do with Pluto. And that's great news; After all, the closer you can get, the more detailed data will be provided. It will be able to record images with resolution from 30 to 70 meters per pixel (in Pluto, the resolution was approximately 183 meters per pixels). Namely: we will see Ultima Thule with an even greater richness of detail.

Art shows New Horizons close to Ultima Thule (Image: NASA)

And the exciting thing is that we know little about the object — we don't even know if it's a nearby binary system (with two small objects orbiting each other), a binary contact system (when two parts of the objects are touching), or a single object whose format is " Different ". Either way, it is known that the object (or objects) is only about 30 kilometers in diameter and fairly irregular shape. Therefore, the images sent by New Horizons will certainly be fascinating.

The transmissions from New Horizons take approximately 6 hours to reach Earth, with the probe being approximately 9.5 billion kilometers away. So, for the first few hours of 2019, we can wait for the first photos of Ultima Thule being received by NASA — and we hope that their disclosure won't take long to happen. In fact, the space agency intends to release the world a sharper picture of the object the next morning on January 2.

Curiosities about Ultima Thule and the New Horizons journey

The MU69 Object 2014 will be the most primordial ever visited and its actual appearance can tell scientists more about the gas and dust disk that formed the Solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Very different from Pluto, which is a dwarf planet, Ultima Thule, although residing in the same Kuiper belt, must be geologically "dead"; However, it may reveal impact craters that are still unknown to us.

It is speculated that the object is dark, red in tone, and irregular in shape, but its true shape can be quite different from the imagined by us. The space rock is so small and distant that terrestrial telescopes see it as a pixel amid darkness, only, and even the powerful Hubble space Telescope "suffered" to discover it in 2014. And, as New Horizons was already in the region, mission scientists needed to run out of time to discover as much as possible about the object so that this time of New Horizons had its trajectory adjusted in order to go through Ultima Thule — after all , this deviation was not in the initial plans, since the probe was sent to space at 2006.

The highlight in the animation shows the 2014 MU69 being discovered by Hubble (Image: NASA)

And, unlike Pluto — whose orbit is inclined towards the solar system's plane — Ultima Thule orbits the sun in an almost undisturbed path, suggesting that it is in the deep freezing of the external solar system since its formation. Along with other objects in that region, it is regarded as remnant of the original disc of the material around the sun that gave rise to the planets. So, studying it means understanding even more about how the system we live in has formed.

Source: NASA, Nature

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