There are plenty of faithful robots in our solar system, on or near nearby planets, that are set to blow our minds with new stuff in 2019. We also have to get ready to broaden our horizons with new telescopes that are bigger, badder and ready to see what no one has seen before. So here’s a lookahead to all things space coming up over the next 12 months.
January will be a super busy month.
On January 1, the intrepid New Horizons probe, which has been travelling for 13 years visiting both Jupiter and Pluto, will fly past 2014 MU69, better known as Ultima Thule – one of the oldest objects in the solar system and the most distant world we are yet to get to. Only about 30km in diameter, Ultima Thule is part of the Kuiper belt – a ring of debris around the sun, some 4.5 billion miles from Earth, on the outskirts of our solar neighbourhood. The ring is a leftover from the formation of the planets of our solar system. These objects are believed to have stayed essentially unchanged since they condensed from the ice and dust of the outer solar nebula when our Sun was a mere infant. New Horizons has just 24 hours to observe and analyse Ultima Thule with all its instruments. Astronomers hope to understand what it’s made of and whether it even might have an atmosphere.
“We want to see what landforms are present—things like faults, sublimation pits or spikes, and maybe even wind-blown sand ripples. We also want to know if there are rings, moons, and finally and most fundamentally, we want to know if Ultima is one object or two objects orbiting each other,” says Kirby Daniel Runyon, a planetary geomorphologist at Johns Hopkins University. “We’ve never explored a cold classical Kuiper Belt object before, so we’ll begin to have a taste of the surface geology and composition of a world that we think has been mostly unchanged since it formed over 4.5 billion years ago.”
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