NASA spacecraft provides first image from record-setting flyby of Ultima Thule

NASA spacecraft provides first image from record-setting flyby of Ultima Thule

NASA spacecraft provides first image from record-setting flyby of Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft pulled off the most distant exploration of another world Tuesday, skimming past a tiny, icy object 4 billion miles from Earth that looks to be shaped like a bowling pin.

New Horizons can't talk to Earth and point to take observations at the same time, and so only after a post-flyby signal is received can the team really relax and begin to anticipate the scientific bonanza heading their way.

On New Year's Day, Nasa's New Horizons probe performed a flyby of this remote mini-world, making it the most distant rock ever explored by humanity. The challenge was all the greater because scientists did not yet have a suitable Kuiper Belt object in mind when New Horizons was launched. The craft is now so far from Earth that it takes six hours and eight minutes to receive a command sent from Earth.

Based on its circular orbit, as opposed to the elliptical orbits of the planets, Ultima Thule formed 4 billion miles away in the middle of the Kuiper Belt.

The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 1/2 years after New Horizons' unprecedented swing past Pluto. But we won't know for sure that the spacecraft survived until the first data from closest approach streams back tomorrow morning.

"To me, this milestone of New Horizons is full of everything NASA and NASA Science is all about".

But the best colour close-ups will not be available until later in January and February.

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.

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's footsteps on the moon in July 1969.

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The MU69 encounter has also left New Horizons with enough fuel and power to attempt another flyby, albeit one not as close as its pass today, Stern noted last month.

Its seven science instruments were to continue collecting data for four hours after the flyby. Then the spacecraft was to turn briefly toward Earth to transmit word of its success.

The photo and additional info were taken from a little distance away. "We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmission". Traveling at 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle.

Mission operations manager Alice Bowman added: "The spacecraft is healthy and we're excited!" While astronomers on Earth would strain to find another target, it's likely that New Horizons itself could track one down.

Stern said Monday from Mission Control at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel that the team has worked years for this moment and now, "It's happening!"

And even the U.S. government shutdown couldn't stop NASA from celebrating such an extraordinary feat. Although NASA's Voyagers crossed the Kuiper Belt on their way to true interstellar space, their 1970s-era instruments were not almost as sophisticated as those on New Horizons, Weaver noted, and the twin spacecraft did not pass near any objects known at the time.

Stern said Ultima Thule is unique because it is a relic from the early days of the solar system and could provide answers about the origins of other planets. "What we'll very soon learn about this primordial building block of our solar system will exponentially expand our knowledge of this relatively unknown third region of space".

The celebration occurred in the midst of a partial government shutdown, which closed much of NASA's public outreach for the Ultima Thule flyby.

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