Update: The Ultima Thule flyby was a complete success!
An excellent start to the New Year, the New Horizons probe will flyby Ultima Thule, which will be the most distant object a space probe has ever explored. Ultima Thule is a tiny rock orbiting roughly 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometres) from the sun.
“We’ve never in the history of spaceflight gone to a target that we’ve known less about,” Alan Stern, principal investigator of New Horizons and a researcher at the Southwest Research Center in Colorado, told reporters Sunday (December 30th).
But when the spacecraft arrives, it will turn a suite of instruments onto the mysterious object, and many of its mysteries will be unveiled. It’s the second historic rendezvous for New Horizons, which zipped by Pluto in July 2015, the first ever flyby of Pluto.
New Horizons will fly only 2,200 miles (3,500 km) above the surface of the KBO, three times closer than it buzzed Pluto. To help conserve power, several components of the spacecraft will be temporarily turned off, according to Chris Hersman, Missions Systems Engineer at JHU APL. The student dust counter, which picks up roughly one micrometer-sized dust particle per day, and the transmitting portion of one of the radio transmitters. By turning off these tools, the spacecraft will be able to operate its scientific instruments.
In the hours leading up to the flyby, the spacecraft will be pointed at Ultima Thule, unable to communicate with Earth.
“We can’t be in contact with the spacecraft and get data,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons’ Mission Operation Manager.
Whatever New Horizons reveals, it will definitely be something that has never been seen before.