Sunday, 24 March, 2019

NASA succeeds in historic flyby of faraway world

Stern Ultima Thule flyby Alan Stern principal investigator for New Horizons discusses the upcoming flyby at a Dec. 30 briefing at APL. Credit SpaceNews Jeff Foust
Angelica Greene | 03 January, 2019, 07:08

The NASA probe New Horizons sent back signals from the celestial object Ultima Thule some 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth, confirming it survived a historic flyby.

Scientists say it will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its observations of Ultima Thule, a full billion miles beyond Pluto.

While Ultima Thule is the farthest object NASA has investigated, the agency's New Horizon's probe is not the farthest human-made object from Earth.

We do know that Ultima Thule has a reddish colour, probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years. The New York Times has a nice collection of pictures taken of Ultima Thule as New Horizons approached.

Ultima Thule will therefore be the most primitive planetary object yet explored, and will reveal to us what conditions were like in this distant part of the solar system as it condensed from the solar nebula.

New Horizons' Ultima Thule flyby is a major milestone for NASA.

The New Horizons team is already pushing for another flyby in the 2020s, while the nuclear power and other spacecraft systems are still good.

Scientists rejoiced at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) today at 10:29 a.m. EST, saying the moment ushered in the new era of "exploration from the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system". "In the space of one 72-hour period, Ultima will be transformed from a pinpoint of light - a dot in the distance - to a fully explored world".

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"It's the first glimpse of what's going to get rapidly better from here on - it's our first taste", Spencer said. It's scheduled to continue exploring the Kuiper Belt until at least 2021. Ultima Thule is about 44 AU from the Sun on average, or roughly 4 billion miles from Earth.

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, was empty. Its unusual shape means that it's either bilobate or in fact two objects in orbit around each other.

"We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed - we think".

At 12:33 am ET on New Year's morning, the spacecraft passed Ultima Thule, a Manhattan-sized rock a billion miles farther out and essentially straight ahead from its Pluto passage in 2015. By this evening, the team should have a 100-pixel image in hand; higher resolutions will follow in the next couple days, with the best shots not arriving till February.

Initial flyby data has also revealed our first discovery about Ultima Thule, showing that it is spinning like a propeller, with its axis pointing approximately towards New Horizons.

A blurred and pixelated image released Monday, taken from 1.2 million miles away, has intrigued scientists because it appears to show an elongated blob, not a round space rock. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left.

A tiny, icy world a billion miles beyond Pluto is getting a New Year's Day visitor. "So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons".

This flyby is the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto.

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