New Horizons Prepares For Final Stellar Occultation Ahead Of Distant Kuiper Belt Object Flyby

Posted: Aug 3 2018, 7:14pm CDT | by , Updated: Aug 3 2018, 7:19pm CDT, in Latest Science News


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New Horizons Prepares for Final Set of Stellar Occultation Ahead of Distant Kuiper Belt Object Flyby
Credit: Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The final occultation observations of Ultima Thule are scheduled for Aug. 4 in Senegal and Colombia

As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft continues toward its next target, the mission team is preparing for a final set of stellar occultation. Using stellar occultations, the spacecraft will observe the fleeting shadow of a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69 from billion of miles away and gather new data on the distant object, which the spacecraft will fly past on Jan. 1, 2019. The data will help mission planners understand the size, shape, orbit and environment around MU69.

Nicknamed “Ultima Thule,” the next destination for the New Horizons mission lies nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto. The object will be the most primitive world ever observed by spacecraft and also the most distant one in the history of space exploration.

On August 4th, Ultima Thule will cast its shadow on two 18.5-mile Earth strips. A handful of telescopes will be placed at multiple points in those strips to observe the occultation event. This occultation will occur when Ultima Thule will pass in front of a star and momentarily block its light from reaching an observer. Researchers used data from the Hubble Space Telescope and European Space Agency's Gaia satellite to calculate and pinpoint these locations on Earth.

"Gathering occultation data is an incredibly difficult task," said New Horizons occultation event leader Marc Buie from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "We are literally at the limit of what we can detect with Hubble and the amount of computer processing needed to resolve the data is staggering."

The ancient object MU69 also passed in front of a star on July 17, 2017. Using mutliple telescopes, researchers were able to capture the event in a remote part of Patagonia, Argentina. Based on those occultation observations, researchers suggested that Ultima Thule could be a binary object or two objects that orbit very close together or even touching. The size of the object appeared to be no more than 20 miles long or about 9-12 miles each if consists of two objects.

The July 17 stellar occultation was the third of the seriess of occultation observations for New Horizons spacecraft. The upcoming and final occultation observations of Ultima Thule will take place in Senegal and Colombia.

“Our team of almost 50 researchers using telescopes in Senegal and in Colombia are certainly hoping lightning will strike twice and we'll see more blips in the stars,” said Marc Buie. "This occultation will give us hints about what to expect at Ultima Thule and help us refine our flyby plans."

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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