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NEW HORIZONS FLIES PAST ULTIMA THULE, Jan 1, 2019, 12:33 am ET

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly past a Kuiper Belt Object nicknamed Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019.  Closest approach will take place at 12:33 am ET.  A spacecraft health status check — where the spacecraft signals back to Earth that all is well — is scheduled for 10:00 am ET.

Ultima Thule is 4 billion miles from Earth.  New Horizons, which flew past Pluto in 2015, will break its own record for the furthest flyby of a solar system object by a spacecraft. It takes radio signals 6 hours 7 minutes and 58 seconds to reach Earth at the speed of light

Jason Davis of the Planetary Society published a useful summary of the mission and why it’s important to scientists.  He quotes Principal Investigator Alan Stern as saying: “It’s a big deal because we’re going 4 billion years into the past,” … “Nothing that we’ve ever explored in the entire history of space exploration has been kept in this kind of deep freeze the way Ultima has.”

The official designation of the object is 2014 MU69.  Stern and his team named it Ultima Thule for the purposes of the encounter based on more than 34,000 suggestions from the public.  The term dates back to 4th Century Europe and refers to a distant, cold place.  Newsweek magazine noted that the term is controversial because it “was adopted by the forerunners to the Nazi party, and the term remains in use by so-called alt-right groups.”

2014 MU69 was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014 and is just 37 kilometers in diameter.  New Horizons will fly past it very quickly at 14 kilometers per second.  It will come as close as 3,500 kilometers from the surface, three times closer than the spacecraft came to Pluto.

Details

Date:
January 1, 2019
Time:
12:02 am - 11:59 pm