Home / Science / NASA New Horizon's probe to visit the longest item ever, Ultima Thule

NASA New Horizon's probe to visit the longest item ever, Ultima Thule

NASA researchers are making history by flying a probe past a mysterious, rock size outside Pluto's orbit.

If the flight city goes as planned, it will be the most distant object in space that humanity has ever tried to visit.

NASA's atomic New Horizon spacecraft will attempt the New Year's Day operation. The object probe approaches is called Ultima Thule (pronounced "tool-ee") or 2014 MU 69 as it is formally known.

NASA did not know that Ultima Thule existed when New Horizons launched against Pluto in 2006. There was not even a reliable way to detect it until after the astronauts flew out to the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009 and plug in an upgraded camera.

Hubble definitely starred Ultima Thule in June 201

4 – about a year before the new Horizons flew past Pluto. Now, 4 billion miles from the earth, New Horizons has the object in its sights.

The deep uncertainty about Ultima Thule makes planetary scientists such as Alan Stern, who heads New Horizon's mission, the more excited about flyby.

"If we knew what we were expecting, we would not come to Ultima Thule. It is an object we have never encountered before," Stern told Business Insider. "This is what the exploration is about."

Where and what is Ultima Thule?

An illustration of Kuiper Belt Objects with dots with New Horizon's flight path (yellow), Pluto and Ultima Thule / 2014 MU69.
NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Alex Parker


New Horizons battles through a zone called Kuiper Belt, a region where the sunlight is about as weak as the light from a full moon. So far away, frozen remains of the solar system formation – Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs – lurking in large numbers (including Pluto).

Ultima Thule is one of these pristine remnants. It has probably remained in its distant and icy circulation for billions of years, and it is not a planet that has deformed under its own mass and erased its early history. It means studying it can help reveal how the solar system was developed to form planets like the earth, Stern says.

"Ultima is the first thing we've been to that is not big enough to have a geological engine like a planet, and also something that never warmed strongly by the sun," he said. "It's like a time capsule from 4.5 billion years ago. It makes it so special."

Stern added that the airfield will be the astronomical equivalent of an archaeological dig in Egypt.

"It's like the first time someone opened the tomb of the pharaoh and went in and you see how the culture was 1000 years ago," he said. "Except this, the sun's sunrise explores."

An artist's rendering of planetary decimal.
NASA / JPL-Caltech

Stern considers Ultima Thule to be a "planetary ideal" or seed that may have created a planet if it had acquired enough material

"It is a building block with larger planets, or a planetary fetus, "Stern said. "It's like a paleontologist who finds the fossil embryo of a dinosaur. It has a very special value."

In New Horizon's first images, researchers will pay close attention to Ultima Thule's appearance. Learning about the surface is relatively even or has a mixture of stones, large stones, rocks and other features will give clues as to how planets form.

Each bit of image data from New Horizons, moving at the speed of light as radio waves, takes about six hours to reach antennas on Earth.

Journey to the Unknown

In June, New Horizons woke up from half a year of hibernation to begin zeroing in Ultima Thule.

After a series of checks, in October, the mission leaders beat the probe's engine to put it on a more precise path to Ultima Thule.

This week, scientists concluded that there were no obvious moons, rubbish fields, or other objects floating in the New Horizon's flight path (and it could slam in) so that they kept the robot on course for their historic encounter.

The airport is slated to start late on New Year's Eve. New Horizons will begin to capture hundreds of images in a highly choreographed, pre-programmed sequence.

"Rendezvousing with something the size of a large, dirty mountain covered in dirt, one million miles away from Pluto, and honing into it is about 10,000 times more difficult than reaching Pluto," Stern said. "That's because it's about 10,000 times smaller. Reaching it is incredible."

The goal of New Horizon's cameras and other instruments will not only be Ultima Thule itself.

"We plaster the entire space around it for moons, rings and even an atmosphere," Stern said. "If any of these things are there, we'll see them."


At 12:33 AM ET on New Year's Day, the space probe will be the closest point – about 2175 miles to rock size. New Horizons will also turn to photograph its output at a speed of 35,000 mph.

Stern said the first pictures will take two hours to broadcast, and the first will be released early on the day of January 2.

But the early pictures will be small (as they were for Pluto). It takes months to get the most detailed images at full resolution because of the spacecraft's power, antenna and other physical limitations. The first high-resolution images will not arrive until February.

Stern, who recently helped write a book entitled "Chasing New Horizons: Inside The Epic First Mission to Pluto", said Ultima Thule got its name from a Northern phrase that means "beyond the outer limits". He did away from making any predictions about what the pictures would show, referring to how shocking the first close-ups of Pluto were.

"I don't know what to find," he said. "If it's anything as surprising as Pluto, however, it will be wonderful."

How to watch live coverage of New Horizon's flyby by Ultima Thule

The members of the Science Horizon science team respond to seeing the spacecraft's latest and sharpest picture of Pluto before the closest approach

Those who are interested in watching expert comments on flyby and see if it can succeed in a live broadcast on New Year's Day.

Michael Buckley, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physical Laboratory (host of New Horizon's mission to NASA), said that lab's YouTube channel will stream a video source from the moment scientists learn to the spacecraft did it past Ultima Thule.

The exhibition will continue even if President Donald Trump's government shuts down the boundary of the boundary wall silencing NASA TV until 2019.

"We're still planning to proceed with the programming we've planned," says Buckley Business Insider. "The biggest change is that we wouldn't use any NASA platforms."

He said live coverage is expected to begin January 1 around 9:30 AM EST, and the "ok" signal from New Horizons will come after 10:00 AM EST.

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