Published: Thu, January 03, 2019
Culture | By Jeremy Gray

NASA's New Horizons Spaceship Completes Ultima Thule Flyby

NASA's New Horizons Spaceship Completes Ultima Thule Flyby

NASA rang in the New Year with jubilation after receiving confirmation that the New Horizons spacecraft completed a successful flyby Tuesday of the most distant object ever explored in space.

New Horizons launched almost 13 years ago as part of NASA's New Frontiers program with the foremost mission of conducting a flyby of Pluto, which occurred in 2015.

Now 1.6 billion km beyond Pluto for its second mission into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will study the makeup of Ultima Thule's atmosphere and terrain in a months-long study to seek clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets. It's small, about 20 miles across, and, as seen in the first rudimentary images, seems to be shaped like a bowling pin.

While Ultima Thule is the farthest object NASA has investigated, the agency's New Horizon's probe is not the farthest human-made object from Earth.

Ultima Thule receives only a tiny amount of light from the sun...

As New Horizons made its close approach to Ultima Thule, it beamed science data back to Earth, as well as information indicating that it was operating smoothly.

"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft", she said, "and it will continue after we're long gone here on Earth".

But Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute who is principal investigator for the $800 million mission, which explored Pluto in 2015, said he was confident.

'Flyby data has already solved one of Ultima's mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons, ' Nasa added.

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The US has thousands of troops in the region and, while some larger military exercises have been stopped, smaller ones continue. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean officials after the North canceled it at the last minute in November.

Icy wilderness: The object lies in the Kuiper Belt, a huge area of mysterious chunks of ice and small planet-like objects that lies way beyond Neptune, and a billion miles further on than Pluto.

The first indication that the spacecraft was safe came at 10:33 a.m. ET, exactly 10 hours after it sailed past Ultima Thule.

"It's the first glimpse of what's going to get rapidly better from here on - it's our first taste", Spencer said.

As for New Horizons, scientists say the probe will continue studying the Kuiper Belt through at least April 2021, the end of its now funded extended mission operations. Tonight, some billion miles later, it will encounter a pristine world known as 2014 MU69, dubbed Ultima Thule (pronounced "ultima too-lee").

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has survived humanity's most distant exploration of another world.

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. It's also could be two objects closely orbiting each other, but only more data will show for sure. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once better, closer pictures arrive.

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

"Ultima Thule is finally revealing its secrets to us", said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins. Ultima Thule is considered a member of the "Cold Classical" Kuiper Belt Object, because it appears to be the gravitationally unperturbed and original material of the Kuiper Belt. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. The mission was launched in 2006 and took a 9½-year journey through space before reaching Pluto.

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