NASA's New Horizons probe makes record-breaking fly-by of Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons probe makes record-breaking fly-by of Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons probe makes record-breaking fly-by of Ultima Thule

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto.

The distant object is thought to have an elongated shape, akin to a bowling pin, and likely measures around 20 by 10 miles, according to observations made by New Horizons-which made its closest approach of 2,200 miles at 12:33 a.m EST.

But despite the festive atmosphere - which included the release of a New Horizons song recorded by contributing scientist and rock guitarist Brian May of Queen, who was on hand for the event - the mission team had no way of knowing if their spacecraft was still in one piece and executing its reconnaissance of Ultima Thule.

Ultima Thule essentially means "beyond Thule", which suggests something that lies beyond what is known.

Update 1/1/2019 12:48 p.m. ET: Scientists with NASA shared a slightly clearer image of what they affectionately referred to as a "pixelated blob" taken pre-flyby.

The NASA New Horizons spacecraft today reached the most distant target in history.

New Horizons launched in 2006 on a mission to explore Pluto, which it achieved in 2015.

And once the spacecraft rotated to send a burst of housekeeping data back to NASA's Deep Space Network radio telescope in Madrid, the signal then took 6 hours and 7 minutes at the speed of light to reach Earth. "This science will help us understand the origins of our solar system". "I can't think a better reason to stay up late and get up early than this", said APL's head of space science, Michael Ryschkewitsch.

This composite image shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like - whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster. So they had to wait until late morning before learning whether the spacecraft survived.

"Congratulations to NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again". Cheers erupted at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control, as mission operations manager Alice Bowman declared: "We have a healthy spacecraft".

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following Tuesday's official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won't be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in color, it is hoped. 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. It was also used to create the star catalog that calibrated Hubble images of the object, CFHT representatives say, which has allowed for New Horizons to change its course correctly in order to observe Ultima Thule.

"The images coming down this week will already reveal the basic geology and structure" of Ultima Thule, Stern said, saying the documentation will begin right away.

The rendezvous, some four billion miles from Earth, marked a historic fly-by in an attempt to map the most distant, most primitive cosmic body ever explored by mankind. At a speed of 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), New Horizons could easily be knocked out by a rice-sized particle. It will take nearly two years before all of the data can be downloaded.

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