DR. SKY BLOG

The strange world of NASA spacecraft target ‘Ultima Thule’

Jan 2, 2019, 2:00 PM | Updated: 2:30 pm

Many of us know that the most distant of the known planets in the solar system was the tiny world we called planet Pluto.

All that changed back in 2006, when the astronomical world changed the status of Pluto to a dwarf planet.

Pluto is still very far from the Sun, at a mean distance of some 3.67 billion miles, taking light some 5.3 hours to get to this distant world.

During my college days, I had the pleasure of having Dr. Clyde Tombaugh as an instructor in my study of astronomy.

Tombaugh discovered Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff on Feb. 18, 1930.

I had many great conversations with him and many of my recorded interviews are still on the website, dedicated to him.

In 2006, an amazing spacecraft was launched towards the dwarf planet Pluto, known as New Horizons.

New Horizons reached Pluto in July 2015 and revealed an amazing planet, rich in detail and structure.

In memory of Tombaugh, NASA placed some of his ashes aboard the spacecraft. You can learn so much more about the New Horizon mission to Pluto here.

The spacecraft then moved on to the deep dark of the solar system, only to be re-directed to a small and yet unknown object discovered by astronomers on June 26, 2014, with the Hubble Space Telescope.

This tiny Kuiper Belt asteroid-like body, 2014 MU69, was the new target of the New Horizon’s spacecraft.

With such a bland designation, astronomers came up with a very interesting name for this tiny object: “Ultima Thule,” a Latin metaphor for a place that is beyond the borders of the known world.

The New Horizon spacecraft did a close flyby of the most distant object yet visited by any spacecraft on New Year’s Day.

Ultima Thule may be only 20 miles long and shaped like a dog bone, with a possible small moon attached. The object may also be a close contact binary asteroid, with a close satellite.

There could also be a cluster of small moons attached to it!

Ultima Thule orbits the Sun with a period of some 295 years!

If all goes as planned, New Horizons came within 2,200 miles of the surface of this distant world, at 12:33 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday.

Light travel time back to the Earth was expected to be some six hours as we await the images that will hopefully be coming in from this distant remnant of the creation of the solar system!

You can follow the mission results here.

A most happy New Year to all!

To print your own monthly star chart, click here.

To view satellites/dates/times of passage, click here.

Listen to the Dr. Sky Show on KTAR News 92.3 FM every Saturday morning at 3 a.m.

Dr. Sky Blog

This illustration made available by Johns Hopkins APL and NASA depicts NASA's DART probe, foregroun...
Steve Kates

DART asteroid deflection mission had all eyes on planetary defense

All eyes were on the skies Monday as a tiny spacecraft launched from earth last November attempted to deflect an asteroid.
4 days ago
(Unsplash Photo)...
Steve Kates

Mark your stargazing calendar for these upcoming October treats

As the year moves on, the skies of October will be some of the best that Arizona can offer!
11 days ago
The Strawberry Supermoon sets in front of the NASA Artemis rocket with the Orion spacecraft aboard ...
Steve Kates

‘Cancer moonshot’ brings back memories of JFK space-race speech 60 years ago this week

President John F. Kennedy gave a speech 60 years ago to set a goal of sending men to the moon. Now, NASA is returning to the moon.
18 days ago
(Public Domain Pictures Photo)...
Steve Kates

Here’s how you can get a great view of the harvest moon Sept. 9

One of the most memorable of the full moons of 2022 is the upcoming harvest moon! Look for the rising harvest moon on the evening of Sept. 9.
25 days ago
(Pexels Photo)...
Steve Kates

September skies feature harvest moon, 4 of the planets for viewing

With fall just around the corner and the traditional end of the summer monsoon season, we will soon return to those great Arizona skies.
1 month ago
Liftoff of NASA's Space Launch System rocket and integrated Orion spacecraft is targeted for 8:33 a...
Steve Kates

Upcoming launch of Artemis I moon rocket kicks off another moon quest

The next great leap to space will occur soon with the launch of the Artemis I moon rocket.
1 month ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Here are 4 signs the HVAC unit needs to be replaced

Pool renovations and kitchen upgrades may seem enticing, but at the forefront of these investments arguably should be what residents use the most. In a state where summertime is sweltering, access to a functioning HVAC unit can be critical.
...
Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine

Why your student-athlete’s physical should be conducted by a sports medicine specialist

Dr. Anastasi from Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Tempe answers some of the most common questions.
(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
The strange world of NASA spacecraft target ‘Ultima Thule’