New Horizons flies past Ultima Thule, 6 billion kilometres from Earth
January, 3, 2019 — Victoria, British Columbia
The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the NASA New Horizons team are celebrating the success of New Horizons’ extended mission to the Kuiper Belt – the belt is a ring of icy bodies just outside of Neptune’s orbit. The space probe, New Horizons, flew by and photographed Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, on January 1, 2019.
This is significant as this is the farthest space probe flyby in history. With Ultima Thule orbiting 6 billion kilometres from Earth and 1.6 billion kilometres from Pluto, the New Horizons flyby was just 3,500 kilometres from its surface.
NRC astronomers contributed to this historic mission by:
- developing a model of the outer solar system to help determine a second target for the New Horizons mission to fly by following its encounter with Pluto in 2015
- producing a map of the stars and their precise locations to help re-direct the New Horizons space probe towards Ultima Thule.
“Kuiper Belt objects are pristine materials—they have never been subjected to the heat of the Sun since the solar system was formed. They offer us a unique opportunity to understand the conditions under which our planetary family formed.”
— Luc Simard, Director General, National Research Council of Canada Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre
“Working with the New Horizons team has been an immense privilege. The team is comprised of solar system science experts from around the world working together to achieve this goal. Now we will spend the next months intensively examining these data and searching for clues into the mystery of how planets formed in the outer solar system.”
— JJ Kavelaars, Head, Canadian Astronomy Data Centre, National Research Council of Canada Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre
“It was one thing to detect Ultima Thule; the next step was to fly by close enough to take its picture. The change of course was going not to where the target was at that time, but to where Ultima Thule would be when the spacecraft flew past in late 2018. Ultima Thule’s orbit had to be predicted as accurately as possible.”
— Stephen Gwyn, Science Data Specialist, National Research Council of Canada Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre
Ultima Thule is a small, faint, rocky object that is about 30 kilometres across. It orbits 6 billion kilometres from Earth and 1.6 billion kilometres from Pluto.
The National Research Council of Canada used images from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope to create a map of the stars whose positions were known to extreme precision.
These stellar positions were then used to calibrate the Hubble Space Telescope images to compute the orbit of Ultima Thule with enough accuracy to make the change of course on time and correctly.