Pluto is left behind. Next stop mankind: Ultima Thule

“The spacecraft NASA’s “New horizons” flies in the ten-year journey to visit the planet Pluto and beyond!”.

January 19, 2006, when a powerful 67-foot Atlas V rocket with a tiny interplanetary apparatus, hidden in her almost empty cone, soared in the blue sky, these words came out from the speakers, excited the hearts and minds of people. Many thousands of them gathered at Cape Canaveral and even more watched on TV and the Internet. It was the fastest launch from Earth, as the precious cargo was sent to the most distant object ever visited by space probes. When the giant Atlas, finally freed from his greatness as a launch pad, the word “go!” not strongly attracted attention to the background of all this love for Pluto.

But now, nearly 13 years later, we’re about to find out what they meant really.

Beyond Pluto

The Kuiper belt — a vast, far store of millions of frozen, primitive objects, the existence of which was supposed for a long time, but was confirmed only during the mission to Pluto in 1990. The opening of the early 1990s showed that Pluto was not just an oddity on the outer edge of the Solar system, and the part completely unexplored territories beyond the orbit of Neptune. This discovery helped to organize academic support for the mission, which later turned into an expedition to Pluto and the Kuiper belt.

In our fantastic show spaceships in future centuries, always versatile and able to travel to any place where their fearless captains. In the 21st century we are still in the era when our space ships are designed for one time use and only for certain purposes. Because often they have enough fuel for it. Several times we were able to send our ships on an additional mission to visit another comet or asteroid.

And yet one of the many exceptional features of the “New horizons” is that from the very beginning was designed to follow beyond Pluto and to explore other worlds that were not even identified at startup. This was necessary because at the time of his takeoff was not known to any object in the Kuiper belt which could reach “New horizons” after visiting Pluto. Nevertheless, our statistical knowledge of the Kuiper belt showed that such objects should be a lot, and we can find them, while “New horizons” are in the way. Once this happens, New horizons will be redirected to new objects.

The search did not go according to plan. To find the target after Pluto was much harder than anticipated. This was largely due to the fact that the region of the sky, which had to investigate was near the center of the milky Way galaxy — which was very hard to discern a dim, rare objects. Because in the center of the galaxy the stars are tight. When the “New horizon” made his nine-year journey through the Solar system, years of research, the best ground-based telescopes are unable to find a suitable object. It got to the point that the continued success of the mission to the Kuiper belt questioned.

Unscheduled only search using the space telescope “Hubble” could save the situation. In June 2014, just a year before meeting Pluto, the Hubble space telescope was put into operation and the team “New horizons” was able to find two objects to discover with the available fuel. Of them the object MU69, now known as the “Ultima Thule” (Thule Ultima, Greco-Latin phrase meaning “beyond the known world) was in a more favorable orbit for interception.

And now, after the flyby of Pluto in July 2015, and the discovery of this dwarf planet and its five satellites in all their amazing and colorful glory, New horizon heading towards the Ultima Thule, which moves in orbit for another half a billion kilometers farther away from Earth than Pluto. In the New Year’s eve, Ultima Thule will become the most distant world ever studied by man, because New horizons will fly within a few thousand kilometers from its surface.

The closest approach will take place in 33 minutes after midnight, however, on Earth this will be known only the next morning. At the distance of six billion kilometers, the connection works for a very long time: so it takes light 12 hours to cover the distance between Earth and the spacecraft. Performing their latest maneuvers, the probe is left to himself. We can say the probe will celebrate the New Year on the distant dwarf planet with us.

We should say that the probe is not what will occur. Usually we ship the machines, knowing a lot more about its purpose than now about the Ultima Thule. Now we know only its approximate size (about 33 kilometers in diameter) and shape of the peach of the two lobes. Maybe they are two separate entities, whirling in the dance. The planet itself is slightly redder than Pluto.

As the Ultima Thule is so far away, so small and dark, we have no spectral clues about its surface composition. And since it’s such a small goal, a New horizon is moving so fast, a few days before the collision he could make out only a handful of pixels. This meeting will start and end very quickly, even compared with other flights.

The same set of seven precision instruments, which three years ago opened our Pluto, will be used for a quick, but detailed examination of Ultima Thule and its environment. A lot if it craters? Uniform or not? Rough or smooth? Rocky or icy? Soon we will receive answers and learn not only about the history of this mysterious object, but another part of the origin of the Solar system. The Kuiper belt is a distant warehouse building of the Solar system, in which building materials from well-known planets are stored in a cool, dry place. What relics it holds, we still have to learn, and New horizons, as it is funny, really expand our horizons in these experiments.

And with a little luck, this seasoned space traveler will find another world before going to forever roam the galaxy. Another daring spacecraft, right end of humanity and lost in the darkness of space.

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