Quebec's Pelletier leads 'farthest exploration of any planetary body in history'

Audrey Hill
January 2, 2019

On New Year's Eve, the New Horizon spacecraft will make the furthest planetary flyby ever.

New Horizons is expected to officially fly by Ultima at 12:33 a.m. on January 1. Ultima Thule's largely circular orbit means that it's nearly certainly spent its entire existence over six billion kilometers from the Sun.

New Horizons is moving through space at 31,500 miles per hour, and it has one chance to get it right as it zips past the object.

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.

The team reached its goal when the vehicle successfully flew by the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015, and sent back data "that resulted in profound new insights about Pluto and its moons, " according to the space agency's website.

Later on New Years Day NASA will broadcast the signal acquisition from New Horizons, confirming that it gathered the data it was instructed to and building up some serious hype for the eventual reveal of the first images of the distant object.

The success at Pluto and the spacecraft's continuing good health, plus the identification in 2014 of a KBO along its route, won approval for the extended mission that will reach its climax on Tuesday. Due to their temperature they can not change internally and externally, keeping them frozen in time over billions of years. Scientists know very little about Kuiper Belt objects, making the flyby a landmark moment.

The object was previously known as 2014 MU69.

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New Horizons must execute a series of pre-planned tasks when it flies by Ultima Thule on January 1st at 12:33AM ET, coming within 2,200 miles of the rock's surface.

Frédéric Pelletier is guiding the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement".

Once the flyby happens and mission scientists understand more about just what Ultima Thule is, NASA will choose a formal name to submit to the International Astronomical Union. The objects in this region are believed to be frozen in time - relics left over from the formation of the solar system. "I love going to places (that are) unexplored - we're on the edge of the solar system".

"We don't have a lot of information on the composition", said mission co-investigator Kelsi Singer of SwRI.

The spacecraft team that brought us close-ups of Pluto will ring in the new year by exploring an even more distant and mysterious world. In 2017, scientists determined that it isn't spherical, but more elongated.

At one point in the project's long history, visiting Pluto and a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) were both primary objectives and it was called the Pluto-Kuiper Express. This area is so far from the sun, temperatures are just 35 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero. It is much smaller than Pluto, but its exact size and shape are unknown. It was never perturbed or moved, and it formed in an area where ice is as strong and hard as rock, so it never melted or formed a core.

The discovery of the Kuiper Belt in the mid-1990s made Pluto - the largest body in the belt - an attractive target, and many, including Stern, credit the discovery with getting the mission approved. He expects it to continue operating until the late 2030s, pointing out that it is only halfway through the Kuiper Belt.

The photos should be back on Earth by late evening on January 1.

Other reports by MaliBehiribAe

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