NASA speeds toward historic flyby of faraway world, Ultima Thule

NASA speeds toward historic flyby of faraway world, Ultima Thule

NASA speeds toward historic flyby of faraway world, Ultima Thule

In fact, retrieving information from New Horizons is so delayed that even NASA doesn't know with certainty that the spacecraft pulled off its mission without a hitch.

Real-time video of the actual flyby is impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive. The pixelated image does not exclude the possibility that Ultima Thule is really two objects in close proximity or in contact. This "light curve" is the changes in brightness over time that New Horizons should pick up from Ultima Thule, as it rotates in space and the different features on its surface reflect back different amounts of light from the Sun (even at its far distance).

Scientists at New Horizons' headquarters are abuzz: Successful mission updates, which show the craft is safe and operating well, have been met with roaring cheers and standing ovations. A series of three approach photos revealed the reason: The rotation axis of MU69 was pointed toward the spacecraft, said Hal Weaver, the mission's project scientist.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has made a trek to the far reaches of our solar system, zooming past icy Ultima Thule at 32,000 miles per hour in the early hours of New Year's Day. 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. But we won't know for sure that the spacecraft survived until the first data from closest approach streams back tomorrow morning.

"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.

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

NASA's New Horizons completed a close approach to a small body in the distant Kuiper Belt early January 1, collecting data that may reveal new insights about the formation of the solar system.

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's encounter to be riskier and more hard than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.

Just like there is an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where there are bands of rocky/icy objects orbiting the Sun, there is a similar (but far wider) band of (generally) larger objects out beyond Neptune.

"My money is on the single body", said Weaver.

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The most famous of these tiny outlier worlds - the dwarf planet, Pluto - was visited by New Horizons in 2015, and the Ultima Thule flyby represents the first major achievement of the probe's "extended mission" after that - a milestone made all the more remarkable when you consider Ultima Thule hadn't even been discovered when New Horizons launched back in 2006.

"Because this is a flyby, we only get one chance to get it right", Bowman said.

It's expected to take 20 months for all the data to be downloaded. It's name is an ancient cartographer's phrase meaning it is "beyond the known world".

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times. "We'll find out Tuesday".

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