Friday, 22 March, 2019

New Horizons launches on NYE to explore Ultima Thule

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
Doris Mccormick | 01 January, 2019, 23:12

In March 2018, NASA called it Ultima Thule, which means "The Edge of the World", on the basis of Internet voting. "To have the chance to lead this from the inception through design and build and flight across the solar system, and now to our capstone in the Kuiper Belt, is the product of a lifetime, and it's something that dreams are made of".

NASA's live stream of the event was very informative, providing details about the mission and animations to show where the spacecraft was in relation to Ultima Thule.

New Horizons made its closest approach to 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, at 12:33 a.m.

"New Horizons will continue in that legacy", Stern wrote.

Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa.

"New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history - 4 billion miles from the Sun", Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado said. This was the farthest object that any craft has ever visited. "There are a lot ideas and every one of them might be wrong". "We'll find out soon enough".

NASA is celebrating the record-setting encounter with the solar system's nerdiest New Year's party.

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They selected it for the New Horizon's extended mission in 2015. Images of the object taken just before the encounter will grow to a few more pixels, transmitted back to Earth at the speed of light in about six hours. The flyby will be covered on the lab's website, its YouTube channel and NASA TV.

New Horizons left Earth in January 2006; it was the first mission created to explore the most distant part of the solar system. Scientists hope to learn about those origins through New Horizons' observations deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt, or frozen Twilight Zone, on the fringes of the solar system.

Until the 1990s, no one knew what hid out here, where sunlight is 0.05 as faint as it is on Earth.

The object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system. Not only is Ultima Thule the most distant planetary object ever explored, it is also likely the most primitive.

Scientist at the American space agency confirmed New Horizons was in a "healthy" condition after passing the icy space rock some hours ago.

But a new, though still blurry image released Tuesday showed its oblong shape resembles something like a bowling pin or a peanut, and its dimensions are about 22 miles long and nine miles wide (35 by 15 kilometres).

Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule looks like, whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster. The space rock features a diameter of roughly 19 miles. 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. "We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft", Stern said at a news conference Monday. "From here out the data will just get better and better!"

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