New Horizons Spacecraft Makes First Detection Of Its Kuiper Belt Target

Posted: Aug 29 2018, 5:22am CDT | by , in Latest Science News


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New Horizons Spacecraft Makes First Detection of its Kuiper Belt Target
The Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule is at the center of the yellow box. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The first detection will refine the spacecraft's course toward distant Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule.

After months of traveling through space, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is finally able to see its next flyby target in Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft’s cameras have captured 48 images of small Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule on August 16. At the time the photos were taken, New Horizons was more than 100 million miles away from the object.

“The image field is extremely rich with background stars, which makes it difficult to detect faint objects,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist and its telescopic camera LORRI principal investigator. “It really is like finding a needle in a haystack. In these first images, Ultima appears only as a bump on the side of a background star that’s roughly 17 times brighter, but Ultima will be getting brighter – and easier to see – as the spacecraft gets closer.”

Officially known as 2014 MU69, Ultima Thule is a small, frozen object that orbits a billion miles beyond Pluto, at the outer edge of our solar system. The object was just discovered in 2014 and appears to be around 20 miles long. Like other Kuiper Belt objects, the ancient 2014 MU69 could hold critical clues to the formation of the outer solar system.

New Horizons spacecraft will make a close approach to this object on Jan. 1, 2019. If all goes to plan, Ultima Thule will become the most primitive and most distant object ever observed by a spacecraft.

2014 MU69 is still shrouded in mystery despite observations from the Hubble Space Telescope in recent years. This first detection of Ultima Thule will refine New Horizons’ path toward the object and provide more information about its size, shape, environment and other conditions.

“Our team worked hard to determine if Ultima was detected by LORRI at such a great distance, and the result is a clear yes,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible. We are on Ultima’s doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits!"

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has already made a historic close flyby to Pluto and its moons on July 14, 2015. In the latest mission, the spacecraft will fly about three times closer to its target than it did to Pluto in July. The upcoming flyby will provide a more detailed look at such a fundamental building block of the solar system.

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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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