NASA is set to reach the farthest object humanity has ever visited tomorrow.
The space agency is planning to start 2019 by making history as they fly a probe past Ultima Thule, a massive, mountain-sized object located beyond the orbit of Pluto.
The nuclear-powered New Horizons probe visited Pluto in 2015, but NASA weren’t aware of Ultima Thule’s existence when the probe was launched in 2006.
Until astronauts flew to the Hubble Space Telescope and plugged in an upgraded camera in 2009, there wasn’t even a reliable way to detect the huge object, Business Insider report.
Now, however, the probe is travelling through a zone known as the Kuiper Belt and is closing in on Ultima Thule – which is formally titled 2014 MU69.
— Alan Stern (@AlanStern) December 29, 2018
In the region, which lies approximately 4 billion miles away from Earth, there are vast amounts of frozen leftovers from the solar system’s formation, including both Pluto and Ultima Thule.
The mysterious, far-away object has presumably remained in its icy orbit for millions of years, and according to researcher Alan Stern, studying it may help us understand how the solar system evolved to form planets like Earth.
The flyby will be attempted on New Year’s Day, and if all goes to plan, Ultima Thule will become the most distant object in space ever visited by humanity.
The object was first definitively photographed in June 2014, but researchers are hoping the flyby will teach them more about it.
Speaking to Business Insider, Alan said:
If we knew what to expect, we wouldn’t be going to Ultima Thule. It’s an object we’ve never encountered before. This is what what exploration is about.
Ultima is the first thing we’ve been to that is not big enough to have a geological engine like a planet, and also something that’s never been warmed greatly by the sun.
It’s like a time capsule from 4.5 billion years ago. That’s what makes it so special.
BREAKING…Signal has just been received at mission control, New Horizons has successfully started its flyby program of stored commands and the exploration of Ultima Thule 4 billion miles away! THIS IS IT FOLKS, FLYBY HAS BEGUN! Go New Horizons!! #NASA #Science #SPACE#ULTIMAFLYBY pic.twitter.com/48VuCLHz5i
— Alan Stern (@AlanStern) December 25, 2018
To put the importance of the flyby in (literally) more down to earth terms, Alan explained having the opportunity to learn more about Ultima Thule is the equivalent of an archaeological dig in Egypt.
It’s like the first time someone opened up the pharaoh’s tomb and went inside, and you see what the culture was like 1,000 years ago. Except this is exploring the dawn of the solar system.
Alan went on to say the hopefully soon-to-be reached object could have been a planet if it had acquired enough material.
It’s a building block of larger planets, or a planetary embryo.
In that sense, it’s like a palaeontologist finding the fossilised embryo of a dinosaur. It has a very special value.
If the flyby goes as planned, researchers will focus on the the outward appearance of Ultima Thule, as learning whether the surface is made up of a relatively smooth texture in comparison to a mix of pebbles, huge boulders, cliffs, and other features will offer clues about how planets form.
Let’s hope the mission goes to plan!
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.