New Horizons — Deep Space Exploration

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New Horizons — Deep Space Exploration

Sophie Davis, Staff Writer

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Thirty minutes into the new year, NASA’s New Horizons mission made flyby contact with Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited in space. This small, reddish, icy, planetary body can be found in the outskirts of the Kuiper Belt, an asteroid belt circling our solar system. Ultima Thule, latin for ‘a place beyond the known world’, is a grand 4 billion miles from the sun. Scientists believe that Ultima Thule has been preserved in the outer regions of the solar system. Many other small planetary bodies near the Kuiper Belt have been damaged by asteroids from the belt, but the same cannot be said for Ultima Thule. Once the New Horizons spacecraft made contact with the trans-Neptunian object, scientific history was made. The term trans-Neptunian references any object that orbits the sun at a greater average distance than Neptune, the farthest planet in the solar system. This binary icy body was photographed at a flyby distance of a half a million miles. The larger of this small planetary object is named Ultima, with the smaller body named Thule. Found in the deep freeze of the Kuiper Belt, Ultima Thule’s flyby mission proved there are no limits to the horizons of scientific discovery.

The New Horizons mission was first launched in 2006, and has been exploring the outer realms of the solar system ever since. This mission, led by researchers at John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory who are partnered with NASA, has pioneered discovery in the outskirts of the solar system. In the simplest terms, New Horizons is a lightweight observatory. Prior to the flyby mission targeting Ultima Thule, New Horizons discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto- Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos.

Images of Ultima Thule have been taken prior to 2019, but they have not been as clear due to being farther than New Horizons had been when they were taken. Unfortunately, while scientists were able to receive a multitude of photos from this flyby, it will take 20 months to attain all data. Once acquired, scientists will have a broader understanding of the outer reaches of our solar system and work to develop the technology to send more missions into deep space.