The farthest object humanity can touch


“Earth is a cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever” – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

The biggest thing humanity can find in the history of mankind is the exploration and expansion. From the tribes of our ancestors to colonisation of the new world, human civilisation always tried to seek what’s beyond its horizon. Scientific improvements, technical advancements in the past century helped us to break those barriers, to conquer the remaining frontiers of the earth. Now it’s time to break another barrier skyward to the next frontier: space.

On January 2006, NASA launched an interplanetary space probe New Horizons engineered by John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory with a team led by A. Stern. New Horizon had a primary mission of flyby Pluto in 2015. But then comes a secondary mission of flyby a farthest object humanity can ever touched, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) named 2014 MU69 in the year of 2019. Publically nicknamed Ultima Thule which means “beyond the known world”.

This object was first seen by the Hubble Space Telescope on June 26, 2014. It’s located at the Kuiper Belt 6.5 billion kilometres from sun. Kuiper Belt is a region starts after Neptune to 50AU from Sun full of solar rebels, all remnants of the solar system formation. Ultima Thule is a class object of Kuiper Belt which is called “Cold Classicals” which have nearly circular orbits around the sun. These objects have a low inclination with the solar plane and have not perturbed since their formation of 4.6 billion years ago. So Ultima Thule is the most primitive object explored to reveal us the conditions at this distant part of the solar region. As we can’t rewind the system of solar system, scientists are observing the objects of Kuiper Belt.

In July 2017, the object passed in front of a star as seen from the earth which is also known as stellar occlusion. So, the scientists determine the actual shape of Ultima Thule. Its shape is most likely a contact binary (two touching body) or a close binary (two objects orbiting each other). One is 3 times of another. The bigger one is called Ultima and the smaller is Thule. It has a reddish colour because of the exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years.

These are all the things scientists found about Ultima Thule before the flyby. So the flyby was very much important to know about its shape, any presence of any satellite of this small object and most importantly this ultra-distant fossil will help us to answer the questions about the formation of planets throughout the universe.

After a dramatic journey to Pluto and a complete flyby, on October 25, 2016 it started its journey to 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule). At-last on the 1st January 2019, on the day of new year, it sends its first closest image of Ultima Thule and we see the reddish snowman for the first time so clearly.

It confirms that the two parts are connected with each other. It has at most 33 kilometres diameter. According to some scientists in 2012 they proposed a pebble accretion model to prove the formation of the planet, but it was refused then. But after refinements by theorist Harold Levison in 2015, now after the discovery of Ultima Thule this theory is approved. Now after the scientists know that this 33 km Ultima Thule is composed of two roughly spherical lobes, which apparently began their lives as independent. The duo quickly spiralled closer and closer together and come closer at a very low speed (less than 1 kilometre per hour) and form this earliest days of reddish “snowman”.

This Ultima Thule flyby is the centrepiece of the extended New Horizon mission, which runs through 2021. The spacecraft has enough fuel and power and also in good health to potentially fly another third object of Kuiper Belt. Then this will no longer be the farthest object humanity can touch. But these technological advancements are a clear proof that day by day we are breaking all the barriers and going to a day of intergalactic civilisation.

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