- NASA’s New Horizons probe is on course to flyby the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule, which is at a distance of 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth this New Year. This event will set the record for the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, scientists say.
- The spacecraft has successfully performed the three and half-minute manoeuvre on October 3 to home in on its location.
- The manoeuvre slightly tweaked the spacecraft’s trajectory and bumped its speed by 2.1 metres per second keeping it on track to fly past Ultima officially named 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019.
- This manoeuvre has led the farthest exploration in world more than a billion miles beyond Pluto.
Trajectory Correction Maneuver
- New Horizons itself was about 6.35 billion km from earth when it carried out trajectory correction maneuver (TCM), the farthest course-correction ever performed.
- This was the first Ultima targeting maneuver that used pictures taken by New Horizons itself to determine the spacecraft’s position relative to the Kuiper Belt object.
- The TCM is done by determining the current trajectories and its target, and then calculating the manoeuvering required to put the spacecraft at the desired aim point for the flyby 3,500 km from Ultima at closest approach.
New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager
- The optical navigation images gathered by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) provide direct information of Ultima’s position relative to New Horizons.
- This has helped the team determine where the spacecraft is headed.
- The recent navigation images have helped confirm that Ultima is within about 500 km of its expected position, which is exceptionally good.
- The spacecraft is just 112 million kilometres from Ultima, closing in at 51,911 km/h.
- The team will eventually have to guide the spacecraft into an approximately 120 by 320-kilometre “box” and predict the flyby to within 140 seconds.