The outer solar system is a solitary place. But, for a small city rock, little by little it will become a bit less lonely on New Year's Day, since a space ship sent from Earth over a decade is at point to make a visit
This lonely rock is called Ultima Thule, and is the target of NASA's spacecraft New Horizons, which went through Pluto in July 2015. If everything goes according to the plan, the historic flyer will take place # 39 ; January 1, 2019. "This is the longest exploration of a world of history," says Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute of Texas, the main mission scientist. "This will be a truly registered configuration."
At a distance of 6,600 million kilometers (4,100 million miles) from the Sun, Ultima is in a region of the outer boundary of the Sun known as the Kuiper Belt, a ring of objects that are essentially rocky and ice creams left by the formation of the planets of our solar system. Ultima is special, however, because we believe that it was formed there.
Other objects of the Kuiper belt, which extend 30-50 times the Earth-Sun (30 to 50 Astronomical Units or UA), formed near the giant planets before migrating more. But after having originated to the right on the belt, Ultima is probably a piece of unforeseen material that left our childhood in the Sun 4.600 million years ago. However, it is surrounded by mystery, because of its great distance and size. We know very little about it, with most of our data coming from remote telescope visions and stellar concealment: moments when it passed to distant stars and threw a shadow on Earth.
We know that the object is red. We know it is about 30 miles (19 miles) wide, and we know it has a reflectivity of about ten percent, similar to the dirt in your garden. "This is really about it," says Stern. "Compared with Pluto, this is an open book".
Ultima, located 1.6 billion miles (1,000 million kilometers) beyond Pluto, was chosen as the next goal of New Horizons in August 2015. Originally designated 2014 MU69, it was later nicknamed Ultima Thule, which means "beyond the borders of the known world". New Horizons is scheduled to fly to a nearest 3,500 mile distance (2,200 miles), more than three times closer to Pluto.
The ship will use its set of seven instruments and cameras to study the object in a preconfigured routine, including re-capture images from the other side at the speed of 50,700 kilometers (31,500 miles) per hour .
One of the most interesting questions about Ultima Thule is its form. We believe it is a binary: two objects instead of one, but what is not clear is whether these two objects are in orbit or if they are touching. The latter is called a contact binary, similar to Comet 67P, which was orbited by the spacecraft Rosetta of the ESA in 2014, although Ultima is 1,000 times more massive.
It will also be of interest to which part of Last we will actually see. We do not know with what speed it spins, but this rotation speed will determine how much of the object is illuminated by the Sun like the New Horizons creams passed. At Pluto, with a rotation rate of 6.4 days, we could only see a half light illuminated by the Sun during the flight. "If we only have a few hours, we will have pretty pretty images of everything," says Stern. "If it's a slow rotator, let's say a day or more, we're just going to be close to one side the day we want, and we will never know what looks like the other."
The closest approach to space in the object is scheduled for 05:33 GMT on January 2. But the action will begin one day before December 31, when we will get a raw image of the object at only six half a million pixels far away. This will be enough to reveal the Ultimate way. At night, on January 1, we will get an image of 10,000 pixels. On January 2, there will be a 40,000-pixel width. And later, in 2019, once you download the primary data, we will have a glorious image of high resolution that has a megapixel.
With a communications time of 12 hours between the Earth and the spacecraft, the team has prioritized the data that will be sent first in accordance with the key objectives of the mission. It will return about 50 Gb of data in total to the Earth for 20 months, comparable to the one of Flyby of Pluto, with the last data that arrive at the 2020 of September.
Group 1 data, the most important, will be the first. This includes images on the surface of Last Thule, its surface composition and the search for small spots or ring that orbit. Group 2 data, which includes measuring the temperature of the object and searching for any environmental sign, will come next. Group 3 data will be the last to arrive.
Even once these last data arrive, there could be more excitement to come. Because after 2020 in September, depending on the amount of fuel remaining, the team will examine the possibility of visiting another object on the Kuiper belt. New Horizons is not enabled to leave this region until 2028, with enough power to last until 2038.
Before that, however, all the attention is found in Ultima Thule. And the team will wait for all of its efforts to compensate. "We have put the heart and soul to try and plan it and try it," says Stern. "But there is no backup. There's no turning back and it's a turn. It's just New Horizons."
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