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

Stern Ultima Thule flyby

Despite the government shutdown, several NASA scientists and other employees showed up at Johns Hopkins as private citizens, unwilling to miss the historic event.

New Horizons successfully "phoned home" at 10:28 a.m. EST, letting NASA scientists know it survived the flyby of Ultima Thule. "We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", she said.

On New Year's Day, Nasa's New Horizons probe performed a flyby of this remote mini-world, making it the most distant rock ever explored by humanity. It was hardly a foregone conclusion that the probe would even be able to transmit: With a cruising speed of 14.4 kilometres per second, a collision with the smallest of pebbles would destroy it.

Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, noted that the data already collected looks "fantastic". "I wasn't anxious about it".

USA space probe New Horizons flew past 2014 MU69 Ultima Thule asteroid at the very edge of the solar system, making it the farthest from the Earth ever visited by a probe from our planet, NASA said on Tuesday. "In lock with telemetry", said Bowman.

"Because this is a flyby, we only get one chance to get it right", Bowman said.

Scattered amongst the crowd are those who will carry on New Horizons' legacy - I've spotted team members from Nasa's Osiris-ReX spacecraft which entered orbit around the asteroid Bennu yesterday, and the leaders of upcoming missions to a unusual metal asteroid called Psyche and to the trojan asteroids that share an orbit with Jupiter.

Few of those assembled slept well though, without confirmation that the spacecraft was safe. Ultima Thule was discovered only four years ago, and its orbit and surroundings still aren't well known. It also promises a raft of potential scientific insights, including clues to the formation of dwarf planets.

The data will be slow in coming.

On the left, Ultima Thule is imaged by New Horizons at the start of December 2018, from a distance of 38.7 million kilometres. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once better, closer pictures arrive.

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we'll know how we did", Stern told reporters on Monday. "This flyby marks a first for all of us - APL, NASA, the nation and the world - and it is a great credit to the bold team of scientists and engineers who brought us to this point". It takes over six hours for radio signals to reach Earth from that far away.

'The Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles, ' Nasa wrote. The close encounter comes 3½ years after the spacecraft swung past Pluto. "It's nearly like a propeller blade". At present, both a 15-hour period and a 30-hour period fit the blurry observations that they have seen. This "light curve" is the changes in brightness over time that New Horizons should pick up from Ultima Thule, as it rotates in space and the different features on its surface reflect back different amounts of light from the Sun (even at its far distance). "Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt". And New Horizons is a 13-year-old spacecraft; its power generator produces less wattage than it used to, which means operators must carefully prioritize their use of remaining fuel. "We will be in the Kuiper Belt until 2027 or 2028", he said.

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