'Frontier of planetary science': NASA probe completes flyby of distant Ultima Thule

John Spencer demonstrating Ultima Thule rotation

John Spencer demonstrating Ultima Thule rotation

However, seeing as the exploratory spacecraft is about four billion miles (6.6 billion km) from our home planet, this data takes a while to travel back to Earth.

That makes Ultima different from Pluto, which was New Horizons' primary target back in 2015. Whereas Pluto is roughly the size of the United States, Ultima could fit atop Washington, D.C. This means New Horizons has to get much closer to the little space rock to examine it, and the encounter will be over much more quickly.

"I don't know about you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a press conference following confirmation of New Horizons' successful flyby. Scientists aren't yet sure if Ultima is a single body, a binary pair, or a system of many objects.

"We have a healthy spacecraft", Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman said.

He said: "We've looked pretty hard for hazards and we haven't seen anything to be concerned about, so we are sticking with our primary trajectory".

On the left, Ultima Thule is imaged by New Horizons at the start of December 2018, from a distance of 38.7 million kilometres.

New Horizons' mission was to collect data, including thousands of photographs, of Ultima Thule, a frozen world on the Kuiper belt about one billion miles beyond the farthest known major planet, Neptune.

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That new data should help clear up some outstanding questions scientists still have about this distant object - including whether that bowling pin shape actually masks two closely co-orbiting objects (not one integrated mass), and how long it takes the spinning object to complete a rotation. "Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt".

In 2014, astronomers found Thule using the Hubble Space Telescope and the following year selected it for New Horizon's extended mission.

About 10 hours after the middle-of-the-night encounter 4 billion miles away, flight controllers in Laurel, Md., received a signal from the spacecraft late Tuesday morning.

"We're rendezvousing with something that's a mountain draped in black velvet in nearly pitch dark conditions and we're screaming up to it ... within 2 seconds of perfection", Stern said. New Horizons sped past Ultima at a speed of 32,000 mph, coming as close as 2,200 miles.

The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered, blew party horns and jubilantly waved small US flags again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons' closest approach to Ultima Thule.

Engineers at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland cheered when the spacecraft's first signals came through the National Aeronautic and Space Agency's Deep Space Network at (1528 GMT 11:28 p.m. Tuesday in Manila). "To me, this milestone for New Horizons is full of everything that NASA and NASA science is about". In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto. "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".

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