NASA’s New Horizons zoomed past Ultima Thule, and now we wait

Pat Wise
January 2, 2019

The spacecraft will ping back more detailed images and data from Thule in the coming days, NASA said.

This will be over three times closer than the craft flew to Pluto, according to New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.

"This is a night none of us are going to forget", said Queen guitarist Brian May - who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics - and who recorded a solo track to honor the spacecraft and its spirit of exploration. The Ultima Thule rendezvous was more complicated, given the distance from Earth, the much closer gap between the spacecraft and its target, and all the unknowns surrounding Ultima Thule.

"The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation", he said. Ultima Thule's birthplace is important to scientists, because it's a historic part of the solar system and its temperature is barely above absolute zero, which is why it has a chilly appearance.

But the encounter itself is risky, and if the spacecraft were to collide with a speck of space debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly, mission managers warned. Owing to the probe's great distance from Earth and the relative weakness of its signal, it took several hours for scientists to receive and process the image.

Now, New Horizons will beam the first information and images from this close flyby back to Earth.

This artist's impression of Ultima Thule depicts it as a contact binary, two smaller objects that orbit each other and are so close that they touch.

Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched and only found out about it in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope.

This explains why, in earlier images taken before Ultima was resolved, its brightness didn't appear to vary as it rotated.

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Due to their temperature they can not change internally and externally, keeping them frozen in time over billions of years. New Horizons was always meant to travel to what scientists call a "third zone" of our solar system, named the Kuiper Belt.

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Stern said his bet is that the object is a single body, not two pieces orbiting each other, but he would wait until more, clearer images arrive Wednesday to say for sure.

As the clock strikes midnight on the east coast of the United States, you can tune in to NASA TV to join the space agency at mission control in the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, as the world celebrates the arrival of New Horizons at Ultima Thule.

"I think it is fitting that this flyby of Ultima Thule is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 [the first US satellite] in 2018 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019", Zurbuchen said in an email that Stern read aloud Monday, reports Space.com.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

Project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said humans didn´t even know the Kuiper Belt - a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system - existed until the 1990s.

"There's a lot of chatter in the science team room", Spencer said.

It is the furthest exploration of any object in the Solar System.

The twin planetary feats coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when USA astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 in December, 1968.

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

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