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New Horizons ready for the past of Ultima Thule



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LAUREL, Md. – The spacecraft New Horizons of NASA is prepared to realize a flying object of the object of the solar system more distant, an event that to a large extent will not be affected by the closing of the government in course.

New Horizons will focus its closest to the Kuiper Belt 2014 UM69 object, dubbed Ultima Thule, at 12:33 a.m, of January 1. The ship will travel 3,500 kilometers from the small body, 6.6 billion of kilometers of the Earth, at a speed of 14 kilometers per second.

The drivers transmitted a "knowledge update" to New Horizons at the beginning of December 30, changing the time of the events during the flyby in two seconds to reflect an improved knowledge of the position of Last Thule relative to the spacecraft . It will probably be the final update before the flyby, said Alice Bowman, director of New Horizons missions operations, during a briefing at the Applied Physics Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University (APL) here on December 30 .

New Horizons itself is in good condition, with no signal of problems that could hinder the flyby. "The spaceship is healthy," he said. When the ship conveys a confirmation that the update was successfully applied, "we will probably breathe a great sigh of relief." Bowman tweeted by the end of December 30 that The upgrade was successfully installed in the spacecraft.

The scientists who participated in the mission were excited about the science they expect the New Horizons to return, but they are not nervous for the same flyer. "Much peace of mind reflects the fact that the mission will work as expected. There is no indication of anything abnormal," said Jeff Moore, a planetary scientist at the NASA Research Center of Ames who leads the party of the New Horizons scientific team dedicated to geology and geophysical research. "The latest knowledge update places us in a very good position to get some really beautiful images."

The biggest challenge in the days before the flight was not bureaucratic but technical. The partial blackout of the government that began on December 22 when funding expired for some government agencies, including NASA, launched a key in plans developed months before to publicize the event. NASA's closure plan states that the website and social networks of the agency will not be updated during the closure, and that NASA Television will also be offline.

Despite this, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on December 27 that the accounts of television and NASA's social networks would continue to operate during the flyby because the contract that supports this work was "financed forwards" before the closure. APL also made plans to issue information about the flyby in its own social media accounts and the website.

Alan Stern, senior investigator of New Horizons, said on December 30 that, because of the shutdown, NASA officials who had previously planned to attend the flyby could not do so in an official capacity, including appearing in media events or make statements. "Apart from that, we are not affected," he said, adding that officials are welcome to attend events in the form of a flyby as private citizens.

A few members of the scientific team that are NASA officials have had to obtain exceptions from the furlough that affects about 95% of the workforce of the agency "because this is a critical operation "Stern said.

Among them was Moore, who said that he and another Ames scientist, Dale Cruikshank, needed "deal with bureaucracy" in order to avoid the furlough and permission to travel to APL for at the wheel. "We both spent a day filling out the paperwork and trying the system," he said.

Stern Ultima Thule flying
Alan Stern, senior investigator of New Horizons, talks about the next flyby in an informational session on December 30 at the APL. Credit: SpaceNews / Jeff Foust

Scientific wonders

Moore and other scientists are looking forward to the expected seven gigabytes of data that New Horizons will collect during the flyby, including images, spectra and particle data on Ultima Thule. Although a few images and other data will be returned in the days following the flyby, the ship will take about 20 months to transmit all the data they collect for their extreme distance from the Earth.

New Horizons will be out of touch with the Earth during the same flyby. It will transmit some data collected prior to the approach next December 31. After the approximate approximation, 15 minutes of telemetry that Bowman described as a "explosion of health and safety data" will be transmitted, including the amount of data collected. He expects to reach Earth at 10:29 a.m. January of the month. 1. The spacecraft will begin to return the data collected during the flyby later on January 1.

Ultima Thule is considered part of a family of objects called "cold classics." The "cold" of the name does not refer to its temperature, but because they have orbits with low inclination and eccentricity, said Hal Weaver, the New Horizons scientific project, which suggests they have not been altered or modified since The formation of the solar system makes 4,600 million years.

"It's probably the most primitive object you've ever encountered in a spaceship," said Last Thule. "It is the best possible relic of the formation of the solar system at these distances."

"The Kuiper Belt is just a scientific country of wonders. It is the place where we have the best preserved samples of the formation of our solar system," Stern said. "From the scientific point of view, there is nothing like that."

Scientists are also excited about the flyer because little is known about Ultima Thule, which was only discovered in 2014, as they sought potential targets for an expanded mission of New Horizons after Pluto's July July flight. The object, no more than 30 kilometers, has only been seen by the Hubble Space Telescope and New Horizons.

"We do not know anything about MU69," said Stern. "Never, in the history of the space flight we did not reach a goal that we knew less".

Among these uncertainties is the rotation period of the object. Scientists had expected to determine the speed with which Ultima Thule revolves around its axis looking for a pattern of object brightness variations over time, known as light light. However, the observations of the object until now have revealed a smooth light, which makes it difficult to discern a period of rotation.

Weaver said that there is "some clue" in the light data that has the spacecraft spin quickly, in the order of several hours. "The little we've been able to prove suggests can be spinning very quickly, but we've been up and down on the team about whether we believe it or not," he said.

Weaver said the most likely explanation for the lack of light is that New Horizons looks directly at the last Thule rotation axis, so that it looks the same part of the whole object the weather.

However, there are alternative explanations. Marc Buie, who directed the team that watched stellar occultations in July 2017 and August 2018, when Ultima Thule went to a star, said an unusual form of # 39 ; object could explain flat light. While these occultures indicated that the object could have two lobes, an object with three lobes could also produce a flat luminous curve.

Given enough time to develop models, Buie said that he could probably present a way for Ultima Thule to explain the curve of light. But the spacecraft will soon offer its own answers, he added. "Why not wait only until we have photos?"

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