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New Horizons has woken from its long hibernation, as it is approaching its next destination: one of the Solar System’s most primitive objects.
In 2015, it gave us the first close-ups of Pluto, and now, the New Horizons probe is ready for its next major mission. Over the past three years, it has travelled 1.6 billion km and is now located in the Kuiper belt, which, apart from dwarf planets, consists of small asteroids and comets. The probe is heading for the 2014 MU69 object, also known as Ultima Thule. Astronomers have only known the object since 2014, when it was spotted by the Hubble telescope. They believe that it has a diameter of 30 km, but they do not know, if it is really made up of two worlds, which might be accompanied by a moon.
Since its encounter with Pluto, New Horizons has been in a state of hibernation, and only the most important instruments have been active, but now, astronomers have woken it up to confirm that all instruments are functional. The flyby will take place on New Year’s day, at a distance of 3,500 km, according to plan. This means that it will be able to see details the size of a basketball court. Since mid-August, the probe has made observations of Ultima Thule, which astronomers use to correct the probe’s course.
The exploration of Ultima Thule will provide astronomers with knowledge about the Kuiper belt and reveal what dwarf planets such as Pluto originate from. Moreover, the object is the most primitive world that has ever been explored. It formed in the very young Solar System and has probably not changed ever since, so for astronomers, it will be like looking 4.5 billion years back in time.