NASA’s New Horizons interplanetary space probe is doing the U.S. space agency proud – bigtime – breaking some pretty formidable space records as it continues on its mission, moving farther and farther away towards the outer reaches of the Solar System.
Having achieved its primary mission of a flyby study of Pluto back in July 2015, New Horizons has now got its crosshairs locked on to its next flyby target – a rather small Kuiper Belt object called Ultima Thule (2014 MU69), no more than 20 miles across.
On August 16, when New Horizons was 107 million miles away from Ultima Thule – a distance it is expected to cover in the next four months – the space probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was able to pick out and photograph the space rock.
It was a rather pleasant surprise and cause for celebration for the mission team members, as they were not expecting any reliable visual contact with Ultime until mid-September, per their original calculations.
Ultima Thule, which, for now, appears as a faint dot – hardly discernible against a background of densely packed stars – will become increasingly brighter and easier to spot as New Horizons continues to eat up the miles separating it from the object, before its New Year’s Day rendezvous with it.
“The image field is extremely rich with background stars, which makes it difficult to detect faint objects,” Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist and LORRI principal investigator from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, was quoted by the NASA website as saying.
“It really is like finding a needle in a haystack. In these first images, Ultima appears only as a bump on the side of a background star that’s roughly 17 times brighter, but Ultima will be getting brighter – and easier to see – as the spacecraft gets closer,” Weaver said.
Launched in January 2006 atop a fast-moving Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, New Horizons made its first major flyby when it zipped past Jupiter at a distance of 2.3 million kilometers (1.4 million miles) in February 2007.
The Jupiter flyby added to the speed and momentum of the spacecraft – achieved by exploiting a phenomenon called gravity assist, which is, basically, a slingshot effect caused by the massive gravitational force of the Solar System giant.
It also enabled New Horizon’s onboard array of scientific instruments to beam back potentially useful data about the planet’s natural satellites, its atmosphere, and magnetosphere.
Soon after the Jupiter jaunt, New Horizons went into hibernation mode, the basic purpose of which was to protect the onboard systems from unnecessary wear and tear, in addition to reducing the ground workload of the mission team.
The spacecraft was brought out of its slumber in December of 2016, in preparation for its approaching Pluto flyby, seven months down the line.
The historic flyby happened on July 14, 2015, when New Horizons passed Pluto’s surface at a distance of 7,800 miles, becoming the first spacecraft to study the dwarf planet from as close as that – a record it’s looking to break by a billion miles when it does go past Ultima, hopefully on New Year’s day, 2019.
New Horizons woke up from its post-Pluto siesta a couple of months ago to get ready for its scheduled New Year’s Day encounter with the icy MU69 on the edge of the solar system.
It must be mentioned that MU69 was never in NASA’s original scheme of things, as far as the New Horizons mission was concerned.
It couldn’t have been; because it was discovered only as recently as 2014, getting NASA’s approval for a flyby last year, after it was selected by the mission team as the spacecraft’s next destination in August 2015.
When that does happen on January 1, 2019, New Horizons will have become part of the first-ever up-close study of a small Kuiper Belt object and the most distant exploration of a planetary body, breaking its own 2015 record it set at Pluto by a good billion miles, as mentioned earlier.
Coming back to New Horizons’ initial set of Ultima Thule’s images, Senior Multimedia Designer at NASA Headquarters Tricia Talbert says that “this first detection” and the subsequent visuals expected over the next four months would help the mission team fine-tune the approach coordinates of the spacecraft as precisely as possible.
“This first detection is important because the observations New Horizons makes of Ultima over the next four months will help the mission team refine the spacecraft’s course toward a closest approach to Ultima, at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1, 2019,” Talbert wrote in her article, published on the NASA website on August 29.
“That Ultima was where mission scientists expected it to be – in precisely the spot they predicted, using data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope – indicates the team already has a good idea of Ultima’s orbit,” she added.
“Our team worked hard to determine if Ultima was detected by LORRI at such a great distance, and the result is a clear yes,” the article quoted Alan Stern – New Horizons Principal Investigator – to have said.
“We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible. We are on Ultima’s doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits!” Stern, who belongs to the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said.
According to the mission team’s calculations, New Horizons meet-up with Ultima Thule will take place at 12:33 AM ET (05:33 UTC) on January 1st, 2019, as it hurtles past within 22,000 miles the Kuiper Belt dwarf, at a speed of more than 31,000 miles per hour.
Planetary scientists’ eagerness to explore the far-flung MU69 stems from their belief that the pristinely primitive objects in the Kuiper Belt – almost unchanged from the time the Solar System came into existence four and a half billion years ago – will help them better understand its formative period.
And, of course, there’s always the expectation and the drawing power of the unknown.
On January 9, the mission team will begin downlinking MU69 flyby data, which is expected to take no less than a year and a half.
While the secondary mission ends on April 30, 2019, it could, likely, be extended for more flybys of other Kuiper Belt objects, depending on New Horizons operational health.