NASA’s New Horizons mission is a pretty interesting one. Rather than heading to one specific location, as many other spacecraft do, the New Horizons craft has multiple points of interest it’s planning on checking out.
Way back in 2015, the plucky probe got up-close-and-personal with Pluto before falling asleep again for the long flight towards the outer reaches of the Solar System. Now, just a couple of months after snapping out of its hibernation mode, the spacecraft is settings its sights on its next target, a mysterious object in the Kuiper Belt known as Ultima Thule.
When the New Horizons team decided to snap an image in the direction the spacecraft is headed, they didn’t necessarily expect to actually see Ultima Thule from this far away. Nevertheless, the dim light of the large object is indeed visible in the photo that the probe sent back to Earth, and researchers are pretty excited about it.
“The image field is extremely rich with background stars, which makes it difficult to detect faint objects,” Hal Weaver of the New Horizons said in a statement. “It really is like finding a needle in a haystack. In these first images, Ultima appears only as a bump on the side of a background star that’s roughly 17 times brighter, but Ultima will be getting brighter – and easier to see – as the spacecraft gets closer.”
The Kuiper Belt is a thick ring that is situated on the outer edge of the Solar System. It’s filled with objects of all sizes, from dwarf planets similar to Pluto to specks of dust. Ultima Thule is thought to measure around 20 miles in diameter, making it one of the smaller objects in the belt, but it’s still an extremely interesting place to scientists.
Some believe that it might actually be a binary system, meaning that it’s actually two smaller objects in very close proximity or even in contact with each other. We’ll learn exactly what it is when the New Horizons spacecraft actually arrives at Ultima Thule on January 1st of 2019. When that happens, it will officially be the most distant object ever visited by a manmade spacecraft.
The last we heard of NASA’s New Horizons probe was when NASA released a set of photos taken at the farthest point any spacecraft has ever captured an image (3.79 billion miles, in case you were wondering), but things have been quiet for a number of months. That’s because the probe had been placed in a hibernation mode to conserve energy as it travels towards the edge of the Solar System.
Now, after roughly six months of doing nothing but occasionally checking in with its handlers here on Earth, New Horizons is awake again, and it’s preparing to wow us with some brand new photos.
The probe is currently cruising near the Kuiper Belt, which is the massive ring of various-sized objects that orbits the Sun at an even greater distance than Neptune and near Pluto. Some of the rocky bodies in the Kuiper Belt (called KBOs, or Kuiper Belt Objects) are massive, the largest being Pluto itself, but there are also asteroids and comets of varying sizes. One particularly interesting KBO is called Ultima Thule, and that’s NASA’s next target for the New Horizons camera.
“Our team is already deep into planning and simulations of our upcoming flyby of Ultima Thule and excited that New Horizons is now back in an active state to ready the bird for flyby operations, which will begin in late August,” Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Principal Investigator for the mission, said in a statement.
But before NASA can tell the aging probe to begin snapping it needs to go through a hole laundry list of checkups. Scientists will send memory updates to the spacecraft and gather data about how its systems are performing. Once that is complete they will prepare for the first far-off observations of Ultima Thule so they can better navigate towards it in anticipation of an up-close-and-personal visit.
New Horizons might be over a decade old, but it still has a lot of work left to do. The spacecraft is expected to remain up and running through 2020 in order to deliver as much scientific data about Ultima Thule and other Kuiper Belt objects as possible. Is power source will eventually be depleted sometime after 2026.
Pluto might not be an official planet anymore but that doesn’t mean the frozen world is any less interesting from a scientific perspective. The dwarf planet hangs out at the far reaches of the Solar System and it’s an incredibly chilly place to be. In fact, recent research has suggested that Pluto might be actually be the result of a collection of a billion or so frigid comets that crashed into each other, and a new scientific paper is helping to paint a more detailed picture of its remarkable surface features.
The work, which was published in Science, uses photographs captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft which flew past Pluto way back in 2015. In the images, scientists have discovered evidence of what appears to be sandy dunes on the surface. Well, it’s not actually sand at all.
The photos show an undeniably Earth-like landscape with mountainous terrain bordered by what appears to be a vast desert. Scientists already know that much of Pluto is actually frozen gasses forming solid material. The researchers write that this “sand” as we see it isn’t tiny bits of rocky material like we’re used to here on Earth, but actually frozen methane particles that have gathered into dune-like shapes.
“The methane grains could have been lofted into the atmosphere by the melting of surrounding nitrogen ice or blown down from nearby mountains,” the researchers explain. “Understanding how dunes form under Pluto conditions will help with interpreting similar features found elsewhere in the solar system.”
This is a surprising finding for a number of reasons, but the most important takeaway is that the surface conditions of the planet might not be what scientists had long assumed. With an incredibly thin atmosphere, features like dunes that we typically associate with windy conditions shouldn’t really be possible. But you can’t argue with a photo, so scientists are working on coming up with other explanations.
“The surface of Pluto is more geologically diverse and dynamic than had been expected,” the paper reads. “But the role of its tenuous atmosphere in shaping the landscape remains unclear.”
This landscape is both familiar and deeply weird.
Names proposed by the public are now officially acknowledged by astronomers.