NASA's space ship, Nev Horizons, will fly alongside the farthest space rock we've ever seen. From the zoom of Pluto in 2015, the probe moves further from home, towards a tiny world called 2014 MU69. Comes to the New Year.
The rock is about 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth. It was only discovered in 2014 in search of potential goals for Nev Horizons, so we know very little about it.
We know it's only 30 kilometers or less – less than 2% of Pluto's diameter – which has made it incredibly difficult. "It's much harder than Pluto," said mission leader Alan Stern. "Instead of the size of the American continent, that's the size of Boston. Being 100 times smaller means it's 10,000 times weaker. "
This, combined with the fact that they had only four years to follow the path of the rock, makes it much more difficult to target. If everything goes well, Nev Horizons will only run 3,500 kilometers from the MU69 surface to more than 14 kilometers per second.
It's approaching speed
Taking a stone will be like taking a car moving by the road – and with so little sunshine that it's essentially dark.
The difficulty does not end: plutonium-based battery-based batteries have degraded since launch 13 years ago, so the team will have to be cautious about the instruments they will use. The battery can now only supply an equivalent of three standard bulbs at one time, says Stern.
The team is already searching for dust, stones or a ring that could be around Ultima Thule. This is not only because of scientific discoveries, but also because it poses the greatest danger to the spaceship. "If there is an orbiting remnant, even something literally sized from rice pellets, new horizons would be torn at that speed," says Stern. "If it does not signal in the morning and says" I'm here and everything is fine, "that probably happened."
But, if everything goes well, the probe will send back a lot of data in the first few days of 2019. Like images, there will be information on the composition of the MU69 and its temperature.
The best pictures will be the hardest to get. As Nev Horizons passes, he will take a series of high-resolution photos along its path. They should look even better than those taken on Pluto because the vessel will be more than three times closer to its target.
But if our Ultima Thule location estimates are even a little off, it could end up outside the box, leaving us just empty space. "If this Maria passes, she will be spectacular," says Stern.
One of the first things we'll find out is whether Ultima Thule is a two-lined object, shaped like an unfinished snowman, or two stones that circle around each other. There could be even a few rocks trapped in some kind of floating stones.
Ultimately, we hope that Ultima Thule will teach us about the beginnings of the solar system and its planets. Such rocks were the predecessors of the Earth and other planets. Since it is so far from the sun and too small to undergo geological activity, it will be the cleanest planetary building block we've ever visited.
"We've never seen something that's wild and wooly before," says Stern.
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