NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

Muriel Hammond
January 2, 2019

Operating on autopilot, New Horizons was out of radio contact with controllers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory from late Monday afternoon until late Tuesday morning.

The craft will collect images and scientific data - including geological and atmospheric information - to beam back to Earth. Because of the long distance from Earth, scientists didn't know how the flyby went until several hours after the rendezvous.

"We have a healthy spacecraft".

Since then, over a decade's worth of scientific advancements has helped us to learn more about the Kuiper Belt and the odd worlds that might inhabit it, but there's no denying that this first up-close brush with an actual Kuiper Belt Object is an unprecedented accomplishment.

A huge spill-over crowd in a nearby auditorium joined in the loud celebration, cheering each green, or good, status update. Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other.

Ultima Thule is a billion miles farther than Pluto, located in what's called the Kuiper Belt on the outer edge of our solar system. While their fellow Earthlings counted down to midnight, they were ticking off time until 12:33 a.m., when the spacecraft would make its closest approach to its target. "The exploration at Ultima Thule is a fitting way to honor the brash exploration and boldness that was Apollo", Stern wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

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

Scientists wanted New Horizons observing Ultima Thule during the encounter, not phoning home. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once new and better pictures arrive. Its name means "distant places beyond the known world".


Dr. Stern added that while this week's images should be a dramatic improvement over what is now known about the Kuiper Belt, scientists will not have their best views downloaded until February. Those images should reveal whether Ultima Thule has any rings or moons, or craters on its dark, reddish surface.

Scientists think the clarity of the images captured during the Ultima Thule flyby could rival the photographs taken during New Horizon's close encounter with Pluto. This vast region of space contains potentially billions of small objects left over from the formation of the solar system that could hold keys to understanding planetary formation.

After discovery by the Hubble Space Telescope, a series of ground observations were carried out to measure Ultima Thule during an occultation-as it passed in front of a background star and blocked out some of the starlight.

The "Ultima" is part of an icy band of material that orbits the Sun, known as the Kuiper Belt.

"This mission's always been about delayed gratification", Stern reminded reporters.

Mission scientists were relieved about the success because there was only one chance to get it right as New Horizons screamed past Ultima at 31,500 miles per hour. Although NASA's Voyagers crossed the Kuiper Belt on their way to true interstellar space, their 1970s-era instruments were not almost as sophisticated as those on New Horizons, Weaver noted, and the twin spacecraft did not pass near any objects known at the time. As New Horizons travels closer to the object, the pattern of light reflecting off of Ultima, or its light curve, is inconsistent.

It's expected to take 20 months for all the data to be downloaded.

"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft", she said, "and it will continue after we're long gone here on Earth".

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