NASA's New Horizons spacecraft showed us Pluto. Now, it's going to an even more distant world
02 January, 2019, 05:57
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft notched a second triumph in its belt, passing close by a second object two-and-a-half years since it passed Pluto.
After a 13-year journey, the piano-sized spacecraft has covered a distance of four billion miles to reach Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt - a donut-shaped region of ancient, rocky bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune.
An image of Thule, sent overnight and barely more detailed than previous images, deepens the mystery of whether Thule is a single rock shaped like an asymmetrical peanut or actually two rocks orbiting each other, "blurred together due to their proximity", Stern said.
Scientists did not want to interrupt observations as New Horizons swept past Ultima Thule - described as a bullet intersecting with another bullet - so they delayed radio transmissions.
"Ultima Thule is finally revealing its secrets to us", said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins.
Prof Weaver added that the path is looking all clear for New Horizons, and is confident the mission will be a resounding success.
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Stern said the goal is to take images of Ultima that are three times the resolution the team had for Pluto.
With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth.
The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered, blew party horns and jubilantly waved small US flags again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons' closest approach to Ultima Thule. The space probe is best known for its incredible photos of Pluto in 2015, which gave us a hint of the exquisite detail we can expect for the images it will take of Ultima Thule.
At a press conference an hour later, Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute of Boulder, Colorado, led a team reporting on what is known, though the images from last night won't be available until Wednesday.
Stern said that Ultima Thule was unique because it was a relic from the early days of the solar system and could provide answers about the origins of other planets.
The team of scientists cheered when the first signals were received from the New Horizons craft.
"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft that will continue after we're long gone here on Earth", she said. And one signal showed that the Solid State Recorder's computer memory was full, indicating that the spacecraft took its quota of data.
Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa. NASA saysUltima Thule is likely the most primitive planetary object ever explored. The hope is that the mission, now totaling $800 million, will be extended yet again and another target will be forthcoming sometime in the 2020s. "We'll find out Tuesday".
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