NASA to kick off new year with historic flyby of faraway world

NASA to kick off new year with historic flyby of faraway world

Frederic Pelletier is boldly predicting he and his team will get the New Horizons spacecraft exactly where it should be on New Year's Day - 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto to rendezvous with a space rock known as Ultima Thule. Ultima Thule's largely circular orbit means that it's nearly certainly spent its entire existence over six billion kilometers from the Sun. Also, the fact that Ultima Thule will become the first ever Kuiper Belt object to be studied leaves enough room (and hope) that great surprises will be uncovered.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has been speeding through space since early 2006 and it's about to make what might be its most interesting flyby to date.

Communicating with a spacecraft that is so far away takes six hours and eight minutes each way - or about 12 hours and 15 minutes round trip.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will zip past the scrawny, icy object nicknamed Ultima Thule (TOO-lee) soon after the stroke of midnight.

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The voyage beyond Pluto to the Kuiper Belt is part of the extended mission. As distant as it is, Pluto is barely in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called Twilight Zone stretching beyond Neptune. Because it's suspected to have formed four billion years ago, it could help the scientists understand more about how the planets are formed.

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule", indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft. That's about the distance between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with Ultima Thule appearing about as large to New Horizons as the full moon does to observers on Earth, Stern said. If a solo act, it's likely 20 miles (32 kilometres) long at most. It could even be two bodies connected by a neck.

"It's estimated to have a diameter of 30 kilometres right now, " Pelletier said. Ultima Thule essentially means "beyond Thule", which suggests something that lies beyond what is known. As for colour, Ultima Thule should be darker than coal, burned by eons of cosmic rays, with a reddish hue. It took 4 1/2 hours, each way, for flight controllers at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, to get a message to or from New Horizons at Pluto. In temperatures that cold, the rocks have essentially been frozen in time for billions of years. After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects, but the mission scientists said this is the highlight. A year before that historic encounter, astronomers discovered Ultima Thule, giving the mission team a tantalizing second target to visit. A flyby of an even more distant world could be in the offing in the 2020s, if NASA approves another mission extension and the spacecraft remains healthy. The AP is exclusively responsible for all content.

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