LAUREL, Md. — The sleeping baggage are rolled out and the movies are cued up for a New Year’s celebration of cosmic proportions right here at Johns Hopkins College’s Utilized Physics Laboratory, however the star of the present continues to be a thriller.
That’ll change as soon as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies previous an icy object greater than 4 billion miles from Earth, often known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule. The piano-sized probe is because of make its closest method at 12:33 a.m. ET on New Year’s Day (9:33 p.m. PT Monday), practically 13 years after New Horizons’ launch and three and a half years after it flew past Pluto.
Mission managers say it’s all methods go for historical past’s farthest-out shut encounter with a celestial physique.
“We’re able to science the heck out of Ultima Thule,” the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, instructed reporters as we speak at a pre-flyby briefing.
Ultima Thule, pronounced “Ultima Too-Lee,” will get its nickname from a Latin phrase designating a spot past the recognized world. A couple of fundamental details about Ultima Thule, corresponding to its dimension (about 20 miles huge) and its brightness (darker than Pluto), are recognized. However there’s way more that’s unknown, together with its form and its composition.
“We’ve by no means, in the historical past of spaceflight, gone to a goal that we knew much less about,” Stern mentioned.
Astronomers didn’t even know Ultima Thule existed when New Horizons was launched on its technique to Pluto in 2006. The science group first noticed it in 2014, throughout a Hubble Area Telescope survey aimed toward figuring out objects to focus on after the Pluto flyby in 2015.
Nearly a yr after the Pluto flyby, NASA approved a mission extension concentrating on Ultima Thule, a billion miles farther out.
“That is in all probability the excellent object to go to after Pluto,” mentioned Marc Buie, a member of the science group from the Southwest Analysis Institute, which can be Stern’s residence establishment.
In contrast to Pluto, Ultima Thule lies inside a disk of icy materials that lies alongside the photo voltaic system’s most important aircraft, stretching far past the orbit of Neptune in a area often known as the Kuiper Belt. Such objects are categorized as “chilly classicals,” and are thought to have been little modified since the beginnings of the photo voltaic system greater than 4.5 billion years in the past.
Ultima Thule might be the first chilly classical seen up shut. “It’s in all probability the most primitive object ever encountered by a spacecraft. … Due to that, it lends thriller to the story, as a result of we’ve no analog for it,” mentioned Hal Weaver, mission challenge scientist at APL.
Based mostly on two rounds of observations made when Ultima Thule moved in entrance of distant stars — uncommon occasions often known as occultations — astronomers have surmised that the mini-world is elongated, and should encompass two or three blobs of ice and rock that got here to be caught collectively. However throughout the buildup to this week’s flyby, the New Horizons group noticed none of the telltale indicators they thought would reveal Ultima’s price of rotation.
Ultima’s form, composition and rotation are amongst the mysteries that must be revealed when New Horizons flies previous, coming as shut as 2,200 miles at a relative velocity of 32,000 mph. Seven scientific devices — together with imagers and spectrometers, plus a photo voltaic wind detector, a radio experiment and a mud counter — might be gathering readings.
However scientists gained’t get these readings instantly. Due to the spacecraft’s cost-saving design, it could possibly’t gather knowledge and ship knowledge concurrently. And when it does ship knowledge, the transmission price might be a glacial 1,000 bits per second, with sign reception delayed by greater than 6 hours on account of the finite velocity of sunshine.
At the moment the probe despatched again batches of pre-flyby knowledge, together with photos that confirmed Ultima Thule as little greater than a blip on the display screen. Scientists additionally fine-tuned the spacecraft’s flyby schedule to begin gathering knowledge two seconds later than beforehand deliberate.
APL will host a New Year’s flyby social gathering on Monday evening. Highlights embody the midnight debut of a music written for the event by British astrophysicist Brian May, who’s higher often known as the lead guitarist of the rock band Queen. An official observance of the flyby will comply with half an hour later.
The primary post-flyby knowledge transmission gained’t embody any photos in any respect. As an alternative, it’ll be a 15-minute “Telephone Dwelling” transmission confirming that the spacecraft survived the encounter. That sign is scheduled to return in after 10 a.m. ET (7 a.m. PT) on New Year’s Day, with a information convention to comply with at 11:30 a.m. ET (8:30 a.m. PT).
Observe-up transmissions ought to present a 100-pixel-wide picture of Ultima Thule for launch on Wednesday, and a 200-pixel-wide picture on Thursday.
Monitoring spacecraft operations, and deciphering the science knowledge, could possibly be an almost 24/7 process over the subsequent few days. Mission operations supervisor Alice Bowman mentioned some group members have already laid out sleeping baggage, mattresses and pillows at JHU APL to hunker down for the marathon.
“We even had a gentleman who introduced his tent and set it up in his workplace,” she mentioned.
The present will go on though NASA is one in all the companies affected by the partial authorities shutdown. Some group members from NASA, together with Jeff Moore and Dale Cruikshank from Ames Analysis Heart in California, needed to get particular dispensation to take part in this week’s actions. “We each spent the day filling out paperwork and dealing with the system,” Moore recalled.
Others from NASA, deemed much less important, are having to overlook out. Even high-ranking NASA executives are supposed to carry off from taking part in their official capability, though Stern mentioned they’re welcome to attend the festivities as personal residents.
NASA TV will provide video coverage on the air and on-line, and the area company’s social-media accounts on Twitter and Facebook might be up to date for the flyby. Web sites and social media that aren’t instantly managed by NASA, starting from JHU APL’s New Horizons website and YouTube channel to the @JHUAPL and @NewHorizons2015 Twitter accounts, might be on the job as nicely.
Test APL’s web site for “where to watch” information and the latest schedule.
This week could mark the climax of the Ultima Thule marketing campaign, however it’s on no account the finish of the New Horizons mission. Due to the spacecraft’s transmission limitations, it’s anticipated to take 20 months or so to ship again greater than 6 gigabytes value of information from the flyby.
By then, Stern and his colleagues are hoping to identify one more flyby goal deeper in the Kuiper Belt. It helps that New Horizons is powered by a long-lasting, plutonium-fueled generator, with further reserves of propellant for its navigational thrusters.
“All I can actually say now could be that we’re going to make use of each device in the e-book,” Stern mentioned. “We’ve bought about 10 years until we go away the Kuiper Belt, so I’m not fearful a couple of time crunch. And since the spacecraft’s working so nicely, and it has energy and gas to do that, I’m comparatively optimistic.”