The Kuiper Belt is a vastly-unexplored region of the solar system filled with Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), and NASA expects to learn more about these objects after the new year; that's when the space agency’s New Horizons probe will visit an icy body known to astronomers as Ultima Thule (previously 2014 MU69).
Image Credit: NASA
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been whizzing toward Ultima Thule ever since it completed its primary mission: the historic Pluto flyby of 2015. NASA estimates that the probe will arrive at its new destination at 12:33 A.M. Eastern time on New Year’s Day and engineers have devised a carefully-calculated trajectory to ensure it gets there safely.
The Kuiper Belt is full of variously-sized space rocks, much like the asteroid belt found between Mars and Jupiter. That said, NASA’s New Horizons hazard watch team has been on the constant lookout for any hazards that could prevent New Horizons from reaching its destination safely.
Related: New Horizons wakes up from deep sleep to prepare for Ultima Thule flyby
New Horizons’ hazard watch team is comprised of the very same twelve people that kept a keen lookout when the spacecraft approached Pluto more than three years ago. They take advantage of New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument to capture pictures of the spacecraft’s surroundings and identify potential hazards.
Fortunately, it seems New Horizons isn’t in any apparent danger. Its projected trajectory is clear of potential hazards, prompting the hazard watch team to give New Horizons the official green light to continue its course toward Ultima Thule without performing any last-minute emergency evasive maneuvers.
"Our team feels like we have been riding along with the spacecraft, as if we were mariners perched on the crow's nest of a ship, looking out for dangers ahead," commented Mark Showalter, head of the hazard watch team. "The team was in complete consensus that the spacecraft should remain on the closer trajectory, and mission leadership adopted our recommendation."
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As you can probably imagine, NASA’s somewhat excited for this historic event because it’s the first time a spacecraft has ever flown past a KBO for scientific analysis. The high-resolution images we receive from New Horizons will help astronomers learn more about what KBOs are like and could even help answer pressing questions about the formation of the solar system.
It should be interesting to see how the whole shebang unfolds; fortunately, we shouldn’t need to wait too much longer.