It is New Year’s Eve, and what better way to celebrate than a monumental moment of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past the most distant object in our solar system to ever be explored, aka Ultima Thule. This is the FIRST TIME a spacecraft will be visiting the most distant place in our solar system.
Ultima Thule, catalogued as MU69 and discovered 4 years ago, this object (or objects combined) is found in the Kuiper Belt which is a band of icy, dusty, rocky materials just past Pluto, about 6.5 billion KM from Earth. That’s 4 billion miles from us, and 1 billion miles past Pluto! It’s pretty far.
New Horizons left Earth in January of 2006 and has been traveling through our solar system ever since. It flew past Pluto in the summer of 2015 and produced those beautiful images like this one:
Right now, it is approaching Ultima Thule at about 14km/s and when it flies by it will be capturing as many images as possible to try and see what exactly Ultima Thule is. It is about a pixel and a half across in images so not much can be determined, however by something known as the lightcurve of an object is how astronomers determine things, like the objects rotation and shape. There so far has been no observation of a lightcurve, there has no variations of brightness, no changes in the light being detected. This means either Ultima Thule is facing New Horizons head-on or keeps spinning the same way and that’s all we can see so far. Hopefully in 24 hours more can be determined of the rotational direction.
It is highly possible that Ultima Thule is made up of multiple objects, and if this is the case then that might be what makes up most of the Kuiper Belt objects and we can be seeing into the early stages of how rocky planetary bodies form. Also with more images coming in, different colors may be imaged as well as more from the infrared spectra or the tele-photo camera to determine craters which can peer into the ages of the rocky body.
Ultima Thule and the other Kuiper Belt objects are very special to answering some questions about how we might have formed, because those rocky, icy, dusty bodies are old, like dawn of our Solar System old. They can potentially give us insight to the early stages of our solar system. So what are you doing to celebrate?