NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made a historic New Year’s encounter with an object nicknamed Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt a billion miles beyond Pluto. The probe passed around 3,500 kilometres from the mysterious object at 0533 GMT on New Year’s Day, making it the most distant Solar System body ever explored up close.
Now more than two years outbound from its historic encounter with Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on target for a fleeting flyby less than 2,200 miles from 2014 MU69, an icy, city-sized world set to become the most distant object ever visited, just after midnight Jan. 1, 2019. Scientists now say the probe may be able to pursue another destination some time in the 2020s.
Ground observations of the New Horizons spacecraft’s next target last month revealed the distant object, lurking in the outer Solar System more than four billion miles from Earth, might have an unconventional elongated shape, or even consist of two icy bodies orbiting one another in an age-old cosmic dance.
Scientists planning the the next phase of NASA’s New Horizons mission, a robotic craft that completed the first exploration of Pluto in 2015, are going into the flyby of a frozen, faraway city-sized clump of rock on New Year’s Day 2019 armed with little knowledge of the target lurking around 4 billion miles from Earth.
In June 2015, when the cameras on NASA’s approaching New Horizons spacecraft first spotted the large reddish polar region on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, mission scientists knew two things: they’d never seen anything like it elsewhere in our Solar System, and they couldn’t wait to get the story behind it.
This processed image is the highest-resolution colour look yet at the haze layers in Pluto’s atmosphere. Shown in approximate true colour, the picture was constructed from a mosaic of four panchromatic images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) splashed with Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) four-colour filter data, all acquired by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on 14 July 2015.
The long-awaited fly-by of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft, on 14 July 2015, was an event 85 years in the making, following Pluto’s discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Since then, Pluto has gone from planet to dwarf planet, but despite protestations from the New Horizons team, its reclassification never really changed the mission or the importance of what it would find at Pluto.