New Horizons: Nasa probe survives flyby of Ultima Thule

Stern Ultima Thule flyby

Stern Ultima Thule flyby

Just hours before a historic rendezvous with Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, scientists with NASA's New Horizons mission are getting a first tantalizing glimpse of their target.

When New Horizons launched in 2006, it had Pluto in its sights.

Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched and only found out about it in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope.

The encounter with Ultima Thule will be brief and technically demanding, even more so than New Horizons' Pluto flyby.

Our Solar System is a big place, and Ultima Thule is very far away.

NASA said the orbit some 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) away marks "a leap for humankind" because no spacecraft has ever "circled so close to such a small space object - one with barely enough gravity to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit". Dust and other material build up between the two, turning them into peanut shape.

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.

"We have a healthy spacecraft", said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for the New Horizons spacecraft, as cheers erupted in the control rooms at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. New Horizons (bottom left) passed Ultima at 12:33 a.m. this morning. The team hopes to get the mission extended and explore more mysterious Kuiper Belt objects in the 2020s. "This is completely unknown territory".

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Tired from dual countdowns late Monday and early Tuesday, the New Horizons team members were visibly anxious as they reassembled in late morning. Or, it could be due to something completely unexpected!

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

In August 2018, the spacecraft was finally able to capture apixel-wide image of its next target.

"Nothing has happened to these things since they formed", said John Spencer, a member of the New Horizons science team, at a pre-flyby briefing. "By tomorrow, we'll know how we did". The belt is a ring of icy celestial bodies just outside Neptune's orbit. That flyby revealed that even little Pluto, more than three billion miles from the sun, is an active world with shifting plains, glaciers and mountains that reach up to about 15,000 feet.

"I think it is fitting that this flyby of Ultima Thule is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 [the first USA satellite] in 2018 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019", Zurbuchen said in an email that Stern read aloud Monday, reports Space.com.

If New Horizons successfully completes this flyby, the encounter may tell us invaluable information about Kuiper Belt Objects like Ultima Thule.

At 11:30 a.m., scientists involved with the New Horizons mission released the first images and data returned by the spacecraft.

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.

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