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All About Ultima: New Horizons Flyby Target is Unlike Anything Explored in Space
by Staff Writers
Laurel MD (SPX) Dec 27, 2018

This image shows the first detection of 2014 MU69 (nicknamed "Ultima Thule"), using the highest resolution mode (known as "1x1") of the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard the New Horizons spacecraft. Three separate images, each with an exposure time of 0.5 seconds, were combined to produce the image shown here. All three images were taken on Dec. 24, 2018, at 01:56 UT spacecraft time and were downlinked to Earth about 12 hours later. The original images are 1024 x 1024 pixels, but only a 256 x 256 pixel portion, centered on Ultima (circled in orange), is displayed. The other objects visible in this image are nearby stars. At the time this image was taken, Ultima was 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from the Sun and 6.3 million miles (10 million kilometers) from the New Horizons spacecraft. Previous LORRI images of Ultima required using its lower resolution mode ("4x4"), which has one-quarter the resolution of 1x1 mode, and longer exposure times, 30 seconds each for the images taken from mid-August through early December 2018. The new higher resolution images taken from now until New Horizons' Jan. 1 flight past Ultima on will enable better optical navigation to the small Kuiper Belt object and higher spatial resolution searches for any nearby moons.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is set to fly by a distant "worldlet" 4 billion miles from the Sun in just six days, on New Year's Day 2019. The target, officially designated 2014 MU69, was nicknamed "Ultima Thule," a Latin phrase meaning "a place beyond the known world," after a public call for name recommendations. No spacecraft has ever explored such a distant world.

Ultima, as the flyby target is affectionately called by the New Horizons team, is orbiting in the heart of our solar system's Kuiper Belt, far beyond Neptune. The Kuiper Belt - a collection of icy bodies ranging in size from dwarf planets like Pluto to smaller planetesimals like Ultima Thule (pronounced "ultima toolee") and even smaller bodies like comets - are believed to be the building blocks of planets.

Ultima's nearly circular orbit indicates it originated at its current distance from the Sun. Scientists find its birthplace important for two reasons. First, because that means Ultima is an ancient sample of this distant portion of the solar system.

Second, because temperatures this far from the Sun are barely above absolute zero - mummifying temperatures that preserves Kuiper Belt objects - they are essentially time capsules of the ancient past.

Marc Buie, New Horizons co-investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and members of the New Horizons science team discovered Ultima using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.

The object is so far and faint in all telescopes, little is known about the world beyond its location and orbit. In 2016, researchers determined it had a red color. In 2017, a NASA campaign using ground-based telescopes traced out its size - just about 20 miles (30 kilometers) across - and irregular shape when it passed in front of a star, an event called a "stellar occultation."

From its brightness and size, New Horizons team members have calculated Ultima's reflectivity, which is only about 10 percent, or about as dark as garden dirt. Beyond that, nothing else is known about it - basic facts like its rotational period and whether or not it has moons are unknown.

"All that is about to dramatically change on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, also of SwRI.

"New Horizons will map Ultima, map its surface composition, determine how many moons it has and find out if it has rings or even an atmosphere. It will make other studies, too, such as measuring Ultima's temperature and perhaps even its mass. In the space of one 72-hour period, Ultima will be transformed from a pinpoint of light - a dot in the distance - to a fully explored world. It should be breathtaking!"

"New Horizons is performing observations at the frontier of planetary science," said Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, "and the entire team looks forward to unveiling the most distant and pristine object ever explored during a spacecraft flyby."

"From Ultima's orbit, we know that it is the most primordial object ever explored. I'm excited to see the surface features of this small world, particularly the craters on the surface," said Deputy Project Scientist Cathy Olkin, of SwRI.

"Young craters could provide a window to see the composition of the subsurface of Ultima. Also by counting the number and impactors that have hit Ultima, we can learn about the number of small objects in the outer solar system."

The New Horizons spacecraft is on course to fly by Ultima on New Year's Day, Jan. 1, at 12:33 a.m. EST. For a listing of flyby programming and where to watch it online, visit the New Horizons website here

Related Links
New Horizons
The million outer planets of a star called Sol

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New Horizons Notebook: On Ultima's Doorstep
Laurel MD (SPX) Dec 24, 2018
New Horizons carried out its last trajectory correction maneuver on approach to Ultima Thule last week, a short thruster burst to direct the spacecraft closer to its precise flyby aim point just 2,200 miles (3,500) above the mysterious Kuiper Belt object at 12:33 am EST on Jan. 1. At 7:53 a.m. EST on Dec. 18, New Horizons fired its small thrusters for just 27 seconds, a 0.26 meter-per-second adjustment that corrected about 180 miles (300 kilometers) of estimated targeting error and sped up the arr ... read more

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