NASA spacecraft hurtles toward tiny, icy world beyond Pluto

Tanya Cunningham
January 3, 2019

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft's latest flyby target - an object dubbed "Ultima Thule" - may hold a well-preserved cache of secrets frozen in time from the ancient past of the solar system, scientists say. At the time, Ultima Thule was at a distance of nearly 6.5 billion kilometres from the Sun, making this the most distant planetary flyby attempted, and the first time that a Solar System object of this type has been seen close-up, NASA said in a statement.

While Ultima Thule is the farthest object NASA has investigated, the agency's New Horizon's probe is not the farthest human-made object from Earth.

For Ultima Thule - which wasn't even known when New Horizons departed Earth in 2006 - the endeavour was more hard. The New York Times has a nice collection of pictures taken of Ultima Thule as New Horizons approached.

"We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", she said.

Yesterday, on the very edge of our solar system, its mission reached its climax when the New Horizons probe hurtled past a mass of rock that has drifted undisturbed for four billion years. Even though the spacecraft technically flew by Ultima Thule at roughly 12:33 a.m. EST, the team had to wait approximately six hours to receive a signal from the spaceship.

Icy wilderness: The object lies in the Kuiper Belt, a huge area of mysterious chunks of ice and small planet-like objects that lies way beyond Neptune, and a billion miles further on than Pluto. "This science will help us understand the origins of our solar system".

'He asked if I could come up with a theme for Ultima Thule which could be played as the NH probe reached this new destination'. "I can't think a better reason to stay up late and get up early than this", said APL's head of space science, Michael Ryschkewitsch. The challenge was all the greater because scientists did not yet have a suitable Kuiper Belt object in mind when New Horizons was launched.

Stern and other members of the team at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, which NASA chose to carry out the mission, were very pleased with the performance of the almost 13-year-old space probe. The spacecraft zoomed within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometres) of it, more than three times closer than the Pluto flyby. An answer should be forthcoming on Wednesday, once new and better pictures arrive.

Weaver said later this week the team will be able to see clearer images revealing whether there are craters on Ultima Thule's surface and other details. However, it is also possible that the image shows two smaller objects orbiting each other.

"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 in a statement.

'Because of where it was formed and the fact that Ultima is not large enough to have a geologic engine like Pluto and larger planets, we expect that Ultima is the most well-preserved sample of a planetary building block ever explored. "So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons".

Stephen Gwyn, an astronomer and data specialist with Canada's National Research Council who is participating in the mission, said the image has already solved one mystery: how the oblong-shaped Ultima Thule can rotate without changing its brightness. The mission was launched in 2006 and took a 9½-year journey through space before reaching Pluto.

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