Science

NASA space probe 'phones home' in landmark mission to solar system's edge

NASA space probe 'phones home' in landmark mission to solar system's edge

"Even less than a day away, Ultima Thule remains an enigma to us, but the final countdown has begun", said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away", he said. New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006. For just a moment, the craft will fly within 2,200 miles (3,540 km) of Ultima Thule, a primitive space rock from the Kuiper Belt far beyond Neptune.

"New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer", said Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Director Ralph Semmel in a statement.

"We have a healthy spacecraft". "This flyby is the culmination of years of careful planning and hard work, and we can't wait to transform Ultima into a real world".

A huge spill-over crowd in a nearby auditorium joined in the loud celebration, cheering each green, or good, status update.

Mission scientists from NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have confirmed that the New Horizons spacecraft conducted a flyby of Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object that's a billion miles beyond Pluto.

The closest approach between the probe and the asteroid occurred at 05:33 GMT.

"We're already learning about Ultima from up close", Stern said.

On Monday, planetary scientists released a fuzzy image of Ultima Thule, snapped the day prior by the New Horizons exploration spacecraft from some 1.2 million miles away.

As for its shape, scientists say there are two possibilities.

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Now it hopes to solve the mystery surrounding Ultima Thule, which is believed to be a binary system but could be something much stranger. Before, they saw it as only a single pixel. The first post-flyby images will be unveiled on Wednesday, kicking New Horizons' long-running campaign of discovery back into high gear. Although not the official name for MU69, the title Ultima Thule was selected from an online naming contest that translates to "beyond the known world".

Still, the best colour close-ups won't be available until February.

"I'm excited to see the surface features of this small world, particularly the craters on the surface".

However, it will take around 20 months for the probe to send back all of the information it has gathered during the flyby of Ultima Thule. Planetary scientists believe the objects out there have been frozen in time for some 4 billion years - preserving what happened during our solar system's early formation, long ago.

There is no champagne in this dim and distant region, where a halo of icy worlds called the Kuiper belt circles the outermost edge of the solar system.

"This mission's always been about delayed gratification", Stern reminded reporters. The close encounter comes 3½ years after the spacecraft swung past Pluto.

The New Horizons spacecraft accomplished its primary mission on July 14, 2015, when it performed the first close encounter of Pluto.

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.

From New Horizons' location, a radio transmission traveling at light speed requires just over six hours to reach Earth.


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