Kuiper performs a flyby. ?
Yesterday, we learned that the spacecraft New Horizons successfully performed the most distant flyby in history! Launched on Jan 19, 2006, the probe swung around Jupiter in 2007 to pick up speed before hurtling on towards Pluto.
In 2015, New Horizons completed its primary mission by beaming us stunning close-up images of craters, mountains and glaciers on the dwarf planet. We also received images of Pluto’s moons Styx, Nix, Kerberos, Hydra and Charon.
After Pluto, New Horizons still had a billion miles to go before reaching its next destination. Assuming the spacecraft had enough fuel remaining, its secondary mission would be to investigate a Kuiper Belt Object. Ultima Thule (otherwise known as “Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69”) was identified as a prime target via measurements from Hubble.
We chose UT not only because we could reach it before we ran out of “gas,” but also because it would be the perfect size. Most of the objects we’ve studied so far have been either way bigger or way smaller. Looking closely at something inbetween helps us piece together the process of how planets form in the wild. UT has also remained relatively untouched for the past 4 billion years; NASA described it as “the most pristine object ever visited by any space mission.” ?
Yesterday morning, we got the “I did it!!” signal from the probe, but it’ll be a little while til we get high-res pictures and other scientific data back. Because New Horizons is currently 4 billion miles away, there’s only once choice of Internet provider ?, and it’s terribly slow. ?
We can only receive 500 bits per second of data. At that rate, that’s over 30 seconds just to download the text of this caption, let alone the picture of Kuiper. ? Plus a 6 hour delay on top of that due to distance!
Having previously told reporters that “We are ready to science the heck out of Ultima Thule,”* mission principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern proclaimed at a news conference yesterday, “I don’t know about you, but I’m really liking this 2019 thing so far.” Congrats to Dr. Stern, along with @johnshopkinsapl @southwestresearchinstitute and NASA.
* ACTUAL QUOTE IN NYT
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