January 19, 2019

NASA spacecraft zips by most distant world ever studied

02 January 2019, 05:56 | Edward Lowe

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft showed us Pluto. Now, it's going to an even more distant world

NASA's New Horizons Spies Elongated Target Ultima Thule Ahead of Flyby

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.

Its New Horizons spacecraft has survived the most distant exploration of another world - a tiny, icy object almost six and a half billion kilometers away from Earth.

An image of Thule, sent overnight and barely more detailed than previous images, deepens the mystery of whether Thule is a single rock shaped like an asymmetrical peanut or actually two rocks orbiting each other, "blurred together due to their proximity", Stern said.

New Horizons left Earth in January 2006; it was the first mission created to explore the most distant part of the solar system.

Delighted mission controllers confirmed that the robotic explorer survived its encounter with Ultima Thule early Tuesday morning and had started transmitting the images and data it gathered during the historic flyby. But NASA will be sharing updates throughout the day, so be sure to check back for more exciting New Horizons news. It flew past Pluto in 2015, providing the first close-up views of the dwarf planet.

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Just 33 minutes into the New Year, NASA's New Horizons probe made space exploration history, flying by the most distant body ever explored. "We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmission".

Project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said humans did not even know the Kuiper Belt - a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system - existed until the 1990s.

The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises. The spacecraft is believed to have come within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule.

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions".

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's encounter to be riskier and more hard than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater. The small body continues to orbit undisturbed on a more circular path than comets, never getting closer than 42 Astronomical Units, or 42 times the average distance between the Earth and the sun.

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NASA's New Horizons completed a close approach to a small body in the distant Kuiper Belt early January 1, collecting data that may reveal new insights about the formation of the solar system. This was the farthest object that any craft has ever visited.

Scientists chose to study it with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet.

To ancient explorers, "Ultima Thule" was what lay past the northernmost edges of maps, beyond the borders of the known world.

Over the next two years NASA is hoping to find out as much as possible about the mysterious red planet - specifically what it is made up of. "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".

"Because this is a flyby, we only get one chance to get it right", Bowman said.

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