Lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system, four billion miles away from Earth, one billion miles beyond Pluto, is a tiny Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), designated 2014 MU69 but better known by its nickname, Ultima Thule.
In the early hours of New Year’s Day, thirty-three minutes after the ball has dropped in Times Square, NASA’s interplanetary probe, New Horizons, will zip past Ultima Thule at a distance of 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) traveling at an astounding speed of around 32,280 miles per hour (or 51,950 km/hr).
Ultima Thule, which dates back to our solar system’s origin 4.5 billion years ago, will become the star system’s most distant object ever to be visited by a human-made spacecraft.
As distant and tiny as it is – just about 19 miles (30 kilometers) in diameter – the KBO has largely remained a mystery for scientists, which they are hoping to unravel, come New Year’s Day.
“There’s so much that we can learn from close-up spacecraft observations that we’ll never learn from Earth, as the Pluto flyby demonstrated so spectacularly,” said John Spencer, New Horizons science team member, in an August statement.
“The detailed images and other data that New Horizons could obtain from a KBO flyby will revolutionize our understanding of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs,” he added.
Spencer is also affiliated to the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.
Over the last couple of weeks, the New Horizons team has been performing a series of checks and trajectory tweaks to ensure the spacecraft is on course to make the flyby as productive as possible, in so far as gathering maximum possible data on the ancient object is concerned.
However, a lot of things could still go wrong, even though scientists have not found any rings or natural satellites around Ultima Thule that the spacecraft could possibly collide with.
The speed at which the NASA probe is hurtling through space, even an object as tiny as a grain of rice can spell its doom.
“There’s some danger and some suspense,” said Alan Stern, a scientists at SwRI who is also the lead mission investigator for New Horizons.
The New Horizons team understands how important it is to get it right the first time, as there won’t be a second chance to correct things – not at the blistering speed the probe is traveling at.
“Like Pluto, it’s a one shot. We don’t have a second spacecraft coming by a week later,” Stern said.
“And because it’s a very complex enterprise to do one of these flybys, there are literally hundreds of variables that all have to choreograph perfectly,” he added.
New Horizons has been traveling through space ever since it was launched thirteen years ago on a Pluto flyby and study mission, which it accomplished back in 2015.
On February 28, 2007, New Horizons flew by Jupiter at a distance of 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers), successfully sending back data about the planet’s atmosphere, moons, and magnetosphere.
The solar system giant gave it the gravitational slingshot it needed to boost its speed for the onward journey to Pluto, which was spent in hibernation mode to keep its onboard systems preserved for the mission ahead.
The systems were brought back online for brief annual check-ups before being put back to sleep.
More than a month before its January 15, 2015, rendezvous with Pluto, the probe was brought online one final time for a complete instruments and systems checkout before the close encounter.
The mission was a success as New Horizons was able to provide close-ups of the dwarf planet as well as scientifically invaluable data about its atmosphere, terrain, and environments.
Ultima Thule was never part of the original mission and was selected as New Horizons next flyby destination about six months after the Pluto encounter.
Although scientists have a rough idea about Ultima Thule’s size, which is about 19 miles across, as mentioned earlier, they are not 100 percent sure it’s a single object.
It could well be two objects close to each other, or even connected like conjoined twins, which would make each of them about 9 to 12 miles in diameter.
New Horizons is well equipped to map 2014 MU69 in every which way possible, and although nothing is certain, the KBO could possibly be pockmarked with impact craters, pits, and sinkholes or, conversely, present a smooth surface.
Color-wise, scientists are of the opinion that Ultima Thule will be burned black by exposure to billions of years of cosmic rays, with a reddish hue to it; but again, these are speculations and nothing is a given.
“I don’t make predictions,” said Stern.
“The only prediction I made at Pluto is we’d find something wonderful, and we did,” he said, adding that not knowing what to expect would be fun.