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Birkbeck Scientist Collaborates on NASA’s New Year’s Day Mission

The New Horizons probe will reach Ultima Thule - the most distant object ever explored - on 1 January and capture 50 gigabytes of data to send back to earth

A Kuiper Belt Pair? Artist's Concept of 2014 MU69 as a Binary Object. Credit: NASA

Dr Ramy El-Maarry from Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is planning to spend the New Year in Maryland, USA, as a science team collaborator, undertaking data analysis from NASA’s New Horizons close flyby of Ultima Thule, scheduled for 1 January 2019.

The New Horizons probe, which has been in space for 13 years already, will, on 1 January, reach Ultima Thule, an object in the Kuiper Belt, an area in the outermost regions of the Solar System, beyond the giant planets. Ultima Thule will be the most distant object ever explored.

New Horizons will fly by Ultima Thule at a distance of less than 2200 miles, capturing 50 gigabytes of data and sending them back to Earth – a process that is expected to take 20 months to complete. 

The name ‘Ultima Thule’, meaning ‘beyond the known world’, is the current nickname for the object officially known as 2014 MU69. The data from the flyby will enable scientists to discover more about the formation of our solar system as well as about Ultima Thule itself, including what the object is made of and whether it has moons or a ring system. At the moment, scientists are not sure whether Ultima Thule is one object, measuring approximately 20km across, or two smaller objects that are orbiting one another.

Dr El-Maary said: “I’m delighted to be collaborating on this phase of the New Horizons mission. The data from Ultima Thule will enable us to understand more about this most distant area of our solar system, which is a source region for many of the comets we observe in the inner solar system, as well as get a better undersign of how planets were formed. 

“New Horizons previously uncovered a wealth of new information about Pluto, when it completed a successful flyby of the dwarf planet in 2015. We hope that this flyby will reveal a similar wealth of information, as well as potentially revealing some surprises!” 

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