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01 January 2019, 09:45 | Edward Lowe
The collected data on the Ground will continue through the fall of 2020
"I think it is fitting that this flyby of Ultima Thule is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 [the first US satellite] in 2018 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019", Zurbuchen said in an email that Stern read aloud Monday.
The view is consistent with information astronomers gleaned about the object over the past two years as they observed it pass in front of and eclipse distant stars. "So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons".
Only a detailed analysis of New Horizons' images and other data from its seven instruments will tell the tale, scientists said.
"This is just raw exploration", said Alan Stern, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and the principal investigator for the mission. As Stern said, everyone was "nerding out at New Year's Eve". Temperatures here are close to absolute zero because the region is so far from the sun.
He took a breath.
"Who knows what we might find?".
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Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like - whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster.
Despite the partial U.S. government shutdown, sparked by a feud over funding for a border wall with Mexico between President Donald Trump and opposition Democrats, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine vowed that the United States space agency would broadcast the flyby.
Scientists chose to study it with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet. Nine years and 3.5 billion miles later, it took the first-ever close up photos of Pluto, revealing a complex and colorful world mottled with methane mountains and a vast, heart-shaped nitrogen ice plain.
According to the New Horizons team, Ultima is orbiting in the center of the Kuiper Belt, a collection of icy bodies that range in size from dwarf planets to smaller planetesimals to comets.
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"The object is in such a deep freeze that it's essentially preserved from its initial formation", he added.
Once the flyby happens and mission scientists understand more about just what Ultima Thule is, NASA will choose a formal name to submit to the International Astronomical Union. Early observations suggested that it may actually be more than one object, a binary, but more recent images (including one taken on Saturday, Dec. 30) have hinted that this isn't so.
"This week, New Horizons will continue in that legacy", Stern wrote. After the Pluto reconnaissance mission was concluded, NASA authorized New Horizons to take on an extended mission to study Ultima Thule, which was identified using Hubble Space Telescope imagery during the probe's cruise toward Pluto.
The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years.
"It's really a puzzle", said Stern in a statement last week.
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