The story was written for CBS News and used with permission
Three years and a billion miles after Pluto, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is on the verge of at least another one-time, once-in-a-lifetime adventure: the New Year's flight of a small body called "MU69 2014", "Ultima" Known world "- in a NASA competition.
Like Pluto, Ultima Thule is a type of distant Kuiper belt, a vast area beyond the orbit of Neptune inhabited by undefined dwarf stars and a reservoir of frozen remains left from the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
A little more than a dim light point Even the Hubble Space Telescope, Ultima Thule will be the farthest object ever researched directly, a record likely to stand for decades to come if not more.
If all goes well, new horizons will run according to its target at a speed of 32,000 mph – almost nine miles per second – at 12:33 on New Year's Day, and passes within about 2,200 km of Ultima Thule's still invisible surface.
Four hours later, the spacecraft will direct its antenna antenna to Earth to confirm a successful meeting. A few hours later, the first priority pictures and other data will begin to make their way back to the inner solar system.
"Across the whole team, people are ready, they're in the game, we can not wait to go and explore," said Alan Stern, principal investigator for Horizons in New York, Friday. "It was three and a half years (since Pluto's flight), we worked so hard, people are willing to see this wage and see what we can learn about the birth of our solar system."
At a distance of 4.1 billion kilometers from Earth, it will take radio signals traveling 186,000 miles per second, six hours seven minutes and 58 seconds across the bay to scientists waiting in the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University near Baltimore. The first high-resolution image is expected to be unveiled during the January 2 news briefing.
But in the event of an ongoing government closure, the public is expected to be able to track NASA's satellite television channel, but just by chance, the Applied Physics Lab, which builds and operates new horizons for NASA, plans to post photos and other data on the New Horizons Web page and YouTube's channel The lab.
Only a handful of images and other high-priority data are expected before New Horizons moves behind the sun as observed from Earth on Jan. 4, temporarily interfering with the media. But even when a downlink resume, it will take about 20 months to bring all treasure cache to Earth.
This is because of the vast distances involved, the faint signal of New Horizons' 30-watt transmitter and other demands on NASA's deep space network antennas, which are used to communicate with spacecraft over the solar system.
For scientists eager to learn an untouched remnant of the original cloud of rocky debris formed to form the solar system, a long wait would be worth it.
"Everything we have visited in the past has warmed up at some point," Stern said in an interview earlier this month. "The asteroid orbit is close to the sun, the comets … cold was born, but we only visited comets when they are near Earth's path, when they are hot.
Ultima Tula, he said, "is not completely marked by any of these things." It is classified as a "cold classic," meaning the body of the Kuiper belt with an almost circular orbit, which is only falling into the plane of the planetary sun of the system. Another important population of Kuiper Belt bodies, made up of material that is closer to the sun, was pushed out through interactions between the distant past.
But not the cold classics and the Ultima Thule.
"He was born four billion kilometers from the sun, he was always there, his temperature is barely above absolute zero," Stern said. "I do not believe that there is an object we visited that was so preserved in all its existence, so it is really a time capsule, that is the scientific value."
"New Horizons" will fly more than twice as much as Olutima hangs over Pluto's flight, Stern said, "so the pictures will be much more detailed."
"We're going to find out how it's built, how much it evolved, what it's made of, if it has an atmosphere, if it has moons, if it has rings, we're going to take the temperature, we're going to measure its radar reflectivity, We're going to find out if it's surrounded by a cloud of dust left over from the building, "he said.
"All these things and more, because we're not just going to take pictures," he added. "We seduce her surface, we seduce it in color and besides that, we map it out in stereo so we have topography everywhere.We not only determine the composition but we map it from place to place to see if it's the same everywhere or if It is made up of smaller building blocks. "
The meeting has five main objectives: to characterize the geology, morphology and topology of an ultima; To map the color of the terrain and composition; Determine its structure; To search for satellites and rings; And look for any kind of coma, or atmosphere.
"The Ultima Thule can be heavily rough, very grooved or it can even be part of ancient streams and ancient activity," said Carrie Lisa, a New Horizons science-minded team. "We do not know, we just will not know until we get there in January, I'm waiting for a surprise."
Launched nearly 13 years ago in January 2006, New Horizons flew across Jupiter in February 2007, using the giant planet as a target to test its instruments and more importantly, using its gravity to flip the craft on a fast track to Pluto orbit.
Nevertheless, when she moved a hundred times faster than an airplane during her journey, it took another eight long years to reach her destination in July 2015, flying past 7,800 kilometers to collect the first close-up photos and an abundance of data on the most famous dwarf planet In the solar system.
While Pluto's meeting was the main objective of the spacecraft, mission managers knew it would have left the impulse and that its nuclear power supply would continue to operate the spacecraft by 2020. Long before Pluto's flight, the group wanted to watch the Hubble Space Telescope on time to look for possible targets of opportunity Beyond Pluto, which may be close enough to the orbit of "new horizons" to allow further passage.
Hubble revealed Ultima Thule in the images captured on 26 June 2014. It was cataloged as the MU69 2014 and gave the number of the tiny star 485,688. An analysis of its orbit showed new horizons and could reach it with a post-Pluto track correction maneuver.
After the Pluto meeting was completed, NASA managers approved the expansion of the mission, with carefully planned missile fire, matching the New Horizons route to determine the upcoming meeting with Ultima Tula.
New Horizons did not locate its quarry until August 15 this year, more than 100 million kilometers away. It was an almost invisible spot of light, and it would stay a little lighter than Monday, the day before the flight.
However, scientists have at least a clue what to expect when new horizons get there. Based on the occult observations where Ultima Thule moved before the background star as viewed from Earth, researchers believe that the target is an elongated body measuring about 17 miles. It can consist of two orbital bodies close or two lobes that are physically connected, called a "binary bond".
The researchers know Ultima Thule gets only about 0.05 percent of the sun's sunlight doing and they know it's a reddish color. But they still do not know its exact dimensions, whether it has rings, moons or any sign of ambience.
"Really, we have no idea what to expect," Stern told Earth Sciences during a conference in October. "We discovered it only in 2014 with the Hubble Space Telescope working at the limit of its remarkable capabilities, we have learned enough about its orbit so it can intercept and target it, but there are very few other things we know."
What they discover, it will happen very, very quickly. The small size of Ultima Thule means that new cameras will not begin to solve this until the day before the encounter.
On Sunday, for example, the best images will have a resolution of about 6.2 miles per image, or pixel element, and Ultima Thule will measure two to three pixels across. On New Year's Eve, the solution will improve to 3.4 kilometers per pixel and the body will measure between 5 and 6 pixels.
But on New Year's Eve, the decision will be improved to 1,000 feet per pixel and the day after that, 500 feet per pixel with Ultima Thule stretching across 215 pixels.
"Even though we're traveling about as fast as we go past an ultima we passed Pluto, Pluto is about the size of a continent like North America," Stern said. "So when we were 10 weeks from Pluto we could already solve its disk as well as the Hubble Space Telescope, and every week we could see more and more details.
"But Ultima 10 weeks is just a point away, and it will remain as a remote point until literally the day before the flight when we start to solve it.In the day after the flight, we will have high resolution images, we hope even higher resolution than the best photos of Pluto So it 'il be fast.
The new horizontal is equipped with six main devices: an imaging spectrometer known as Alice, a powerful multi-wave light camera called the Long-Range Ramp, Imager – LORRI, which combines an 8-inch telescope, a solar wind particle detector, an energetic particle spectrometer and a built-in dust counter .
In addition, its radio system includes a circuit that allows accurate analysis of the changes caused when signals from Earth pass through the atmosphere.
The data is stored on extra receivers of 8 gigabytes in solid state and sent back to Earth using an X-band transmitter using a fixed 83-inch dish antenna. The data transfer rate will be slightly more than 1,000 bits per second.
Stern said that the meeting poses a much tougher challenge for new horizons than Pluto did.
"It's harder for a few reasons, first of all, it's getting smaller and smaller, so it's harder to keep track of, it's harder to get in," he says. Second, each year, the supply of nuclear power on the board produces less power.Then now we need much more carefully to determine which avionics devices are on, we need to manage our power more carefully. "
Thirteen years after its launch, the only radio-isotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG, produces only about 190 watts of power, roughly enough to energize three ordinary light bulbs.
In addition, because the science team does not know what to expect, new horizons will carefully explore the area around Ultima Thule, on the Sentinel of moons or other features, so that "there will be lots of images of empty skies simply because we try to blanket the whole area in case we discover a late moon. "
Four days after the flight, communication with new horizons will be suspended when the spacecraft moves behind the sun as viewed from Earth. The team preferred the data to ensure a high-resolution image of Ultima Thule arrives in Earth before the blackout begins.
"It's exposed much faster than anything we've done on new horizons before," Stern said. "Essentially, it's overnight conversion from a remote point to a real world, and I think that the first week in January, when we get the pictures listed first back, it's going to be spectacular … not just scientific.I think people who follow the news just to see and think about What our race can do, what our species can do, will be amazing. "
Asked whether New Horizons could reach the third destination of the Kuiper belt down the road, Stern said he wanted his team to continue to focus on the Ultima hanging in the near future. But after the meeting is completed, "we'll look for another destination, I can not promise anyone, you or NASA, that there's one (but) I can tell you this: there's nothing my team wants more than one."
Editor's Note: Parts of the story were originally written for Astronomy Magazine now and are used here with permission.