NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is now awake at 3.7 billion miles away from home. It now flies through the Kuiper Belt for a New Year's Day mission. The probe will explore a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) called Ultima Thule on Jan. 1, 2019.
Most Primitive World Ever Observed By Spacecraft
The Ultima Thule, officially called the 2014 MU69, is located a billion miles beyond dwarf planet Pluto and about 4 billion miles away from Earth.
It is an ancient KBO, which formed where it orbits now. Astronomers hope that it could provide insights into the early life of the sun and the planets of the solar system.
The U.S. space agency said that the object will be the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft. The mission will be the farthest planetary encounter in history.
Thule was a mythical place located furthest north in ancient Greek and Roman literature and cartography. In classical and medieval literature, Ultima Thule acquired the meaning of a distant place beyond the borders of the known world.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, from Southwest Research Institute, said that the New Horizons' next flyby target is the next Ultima Thule of humanity.
It symbolizes New Horizons' exploration of distant Kuiper Belt and KBOs, something that has never been done before.
"Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement," Stern said.
Ultima Thule, however, is just a nickname. After the flyby, NASA, New Horizons' scientists, and the International Astronomical Union will work to come up with an official name.
Much is still unknown about the primitive KBO. Occultation observations suggest the Ultima Thule may be a lone spherical object. Scientists suspect that the object is an "extreme prolate spheroid" similar to a skinny football. They also consider the possibility that the object is a binary pair.
The KBO's odd shape suggests it could be two objects orbiting very close or even touching, making 2014 MU69 what scientists call close or contact binary. The body could also be a single body with a large chunk taken out of it.
Data suggest that the KBO is no more than 20 miles long. If it is a binary, each of the orbiting objects would be between 9 to 12 miles in diameter.
New Horizons' fly by is expected to shed light whether or not the KBO is indeed comprised of two objects.