• October 20, 2021
 Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: New Year, New Horizons

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: New Year, New Horizons

Once again, NASA had the world on the edge of their seats as the New Horizons spacecraft flew by the very distant Kuiper Belt object, Ultima Thule.

Since sending us those stunning images of Pluto back in 2015, New Horizons has spent the last three years on its way to 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule. Thought to be an elongated, peanut or bowling pin shaped object, Ultima Thule was visited by New Horizons around 12:14am EST.

As the world celebrated the coming of the New Year, science and astronomy buffs were treated to a different kind of party as the fly-by was lived streamed on the New Horizons mission website as well as on YouTube.

Although it is uncertain if Ultima Thule is a single object, or two tiny objects in a binary orbit of one another, the distance from Ultima means that it takes roughly ten hours for data and images to come back to Earth. This means that the first images just started coming in Tuesday morning. And while NASA reports that the fly-by was a success, we can expect to see extremely clear images in the coming days as data is analyzed and images released to the public.

These images should prove to be even more dynamic in detail than those of the former ninth planet since the spacecraft came three times closer to Ultima Thule than it did with Pluto. New Horizons will not only obtain the first high-resolution pictures but will also give us detailed geological and compositional maps of the surface while simultaneously conducting sensitive searches for atmospheric activity, satellites, and rings.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons mission goal is to answer questions about the formation of our solar system by observing Kuiper Belt objects like Pluto, Ultima Thule, and possibly others.

Because these objects are so far from the Sun, they are in pristine condition and give us clues as the formation of the other worlds within out cosmic neighborhood.

Essentially, to coin a phrase, the distance of these objects keeps them nearly frozen in time. The mission will also take advantage of the unique capabilities of the New Horizons spacecraft as an observation platform in the Kuiper Belt in order to study dozens of other KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects) in ways that cannot be don’t from Earth.

Aside from that, New Horizons will make groundbreaking measurements of dust and the heliospheric plasma environment across the Kuiper Belt as it travels through this unexplored region of the solar system.

Stay tuned here and I’ll keep you all updated with new pictures and mission information updates as they become available. You can also visit the NASA mission website.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy Cooley

A native El Pasoan, Amy Cooley attended Parkland High School before beginning her studies in physics at EPCC. With her love of dark skies increasing, she transferred to New Mexico Tech University where she earned her degree in Astronomy. Moving back to El Paso in 2008, she now wants to share her love of the cosmos with the city she calls home.

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