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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.

Science Illustrated - - CONTENTS -

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.

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