Sunday, August 5, 2018

New Horizons Team Reports Initial Success in Observing Ultima Thule

Credit: NASA

Using telescopes to watch the distant Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule pass in front of star on Aug. 3-4, observing teams in Senegal and Colombia report that they've gathered data on New Horizons' next flyby target.

Observing the object is a crucial step, but only the first. The team has weeks of data analysis ahead. "We have lots of work to do," said Marc Buie, the New Horizons co-investigator from Southwest Research Institute who leads the observation campaign. "We all fought weather issues [in Senegal and Colombia] but prevailed anyway. The observing teams are due a huge amount of thanks for their efforts."

In a similar effort in 2017, the team struck observation gold from multiple sites in Patagonia, Argentina. Fighting high winds and extreme winter conditions from multiple sites in Patagonia, team members captured a similar occultation from five sites, a major success that taught them much about the flyby target and helped define the flyby distance of 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers).

The New Horizons team is using stellar occultation observations to gather information about the size, shape, environment and other conditions around Ultima Thule. These data are critical to planning the mission's flyby of the object on Jan. 1, 2019.

When New Horizons whizzes past Ultima Thule on New Year's Day, at a distance of more than 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth, the object will become the most distant object ever explored.

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