January 19, 2019

Spacecraft makes most distant close encounter in history

01 January 2019, 11:13 | Ross Houston

NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW

NASA's New Horizons to make history with far-out visit to Ultima Thule

The New Horizons probe flew close to a space rock known as Ultima Thule - a 32 kilometre-wide rock located in the Kuiper Belt, which is billions of miles from Earth.

At the moment, Ultima Thule is little more than a pixel of light on New Horizon's imaging instruments.

The image was taken on Sunday, when the spacecraft was still 1.5 million kilometres from its 12:33 a.m. ET rendezvous on January 1.

The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the "third zone" in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt on Tuesday morning, with scientists having to anxiously wait for hours for an official confirmation via the probe's communications system.

Ultima Thule, known to scientists as (486958) 2014 MU69, is the farthest natural object ever encountered in space by a human-built spacecraft.

"Ultima Thule remains an enigma to us, but the final countdown has begun", said New Horizons principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute.

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.

This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft.

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New Horizons acquired gigabytes of photos and other observations during the pass, however, because of the vast distance between the spacecraft and Earth, it will take until September 2020 to retrieve all of the data stored on the probe.

Hal Weaver, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and a project scientist on the New Horizons mission, said: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity". Eastern, then reconvene 10 hours later to watch first signals from the flyby stream onto their screens. "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.

New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million mission, was expected to hurtle to within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule, considerably closer than the Pluto encounter of 2015.

Researchers are interested in small objects in the far reaches of the solar system, asteroids and comets, because they could contain clues to the solar systems origin story.

The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises. All in all, New Horizons will collect 50 gigabits of data, as compared to the 55 gigabits collected at Pluto.

It is - and the first decent images of Ultima Thule are likely already on their way back to Earth from the spacecraft. "We'll find out soon enough". "From here out the data will just get better and better!"

Based on images taken during the spacecraft's approach, the Kuiper Belt is approximately 20 by 10 miles shaped similar to a bowling pin andspinning end over end.

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

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