New Horizons Spaceship Encounters Ultima Thule, the World Awaits Historic Photo

02 January, 2019, 05:59 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • New Horizons Probe Flies By Distant Asteroid Ultima Thule - NASA

"We're very confident in the spacecraft and very confident in the plan that we have for the exploration of Ultima", said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, at a December 31 press conference.

Because the object is hurling through space at 31,500 miles per hour the encounter with New Horizons was described as "a bullet intersecting with another bullet", the Associated Press reported.

New Horizons examined Pluto when it flew past the dwarf-planet three years ago.

Ultima Thule receives only a tiny amount of light from the sun...

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. But we won't know for sure that the spacecraft survived until the first data from closest approach streams back tomorrow morning.

But the encounter itself is risky, and if the spacecraft were to collide with a speck of space debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly, mission managers warned. "We've just accomplished the most distant flyby".

Cheers erupted in the control centre and in a nearby auditorium, where hundreds more - still tired from the double countdowns on New Year's Eve - gathered to await word. When the spacecraft was finally declared healthy and the flyby successful, scientists and other team members embraced, while hundreds of others gave a standing ovation.


After a 13-year journey, the piano-sized spacecraft has covered a distance of four billion miles to reach Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt - a donut-shaped region of ancient, rocky bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune.

An anxious spill-over crowd in a nearby auditorium joined in the loud celebration, cheering each green, or good, status update. The Ultima Thule rendezvous was more complicated, given the distance from Earth, the much closer gap between the spacecraft and its target, and all the unknowns surrounding Ultima Thule.

While the approach was celebrated at the time during an event at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) here, the spacecraft was not in communications with the Earth.

The spaceship will be just 2,200 miles from the asteroid, which is impressive considering it was spotted from 4.03 billion kilometres away by the Kepler Telescope. It's also spinning, although scientists don't yet know how fast. The pixelated image does not exclude the possibility that Ultima Thule is really two objects in close proximity or in contact. NASA says Ultima Thule is likely the most primitive planetary object ever explored.

A few black-and-white pictures might be available within an hour or two of that official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-up shots won't be ready until later Tuesday or Wednesday, in color, it is hoped. Ultima Thule is in the Twilight Zone's heart. As New Horizons speeds through space at 9 miles per second, it will take less than a day to turn Ultima Thule back into a speck in the rear view mirror.

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA 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. Nine years and 3.5 billion miles later, it took the first-ever close up photos of Pluto, revealing a complex and colorful world mottled with methane mountains and a vast, heart-shaped nitrogen ice plain.

New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of January 1 - 12:33 a.m. EST.

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