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.

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The strange world of NASA spacecraft target ‘Ultima Thule’