Published: Wed, January 02, 2019
Science | By Michele Flores

Nasa probe in landmark space exploration

Nasa probe in landmark space exploration

When New Horizons passes by, the duo will be approximately 4 billion miles from the sun. Cheers erupted at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control.

Stern, Bowman and other key players soon joined their friends in the auditorium, where the celebration continued and a news conference took place.

The object is so far away that it takes more than six hours for a command sent from Earth to reach New Horizons. Confirmation was not expected for hours, though, given the vast distance.

Ultima Thule orbits a billion miles beyond Pluto and has been locked in a state of deep-freeze preservation since the universe began some 4.5 billion years ago.

New Horizons made its closest approach to 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, at 12:33 a.m. So they had to wait until late morning before learning whether the spacecraft survived. Instead, hundreds of team members and their guests gathered nearby on campus for back-to-back countdowns.

The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the "third zone" in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12.33am Eastern (1.33pm Malaysian time).

"We set a record".

But New Horizons' performance so far suggests it is ready for the challenge, Stern said.

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That object - nicknamed Ultima Thule - was first glimpsed at long distance by the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2014, but it wasn't until just now in 2019 that scientists got an up-close look to better understand this mysterious far-flung mass.

Its seven science instruments were to continue collecting data for four hours after the flyby. Asteroids became a popular destination too: Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft touched down on the asteroid Ryugu in October and collected a sample that will return to Earth in 2020. That data includes high-resolution images of Ultima Thule and spectra that can provide information about its composition. Traveling at 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle. The spacecraft zoomed within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometres) of it, more than three times closer than the Pluto flyby. "To me, this milestone for New Horizons is full of everything that NASA and NASA science is about".

The risk added to the excitement.

Fans can watch Ultima Thule flyby events live on NASATV and John Hopkins APL. As the countdown to the flyby reached its climax, the crowd went as insane as any New Year crowd would as the fireworks lit up the night sky.

"This is completely unknown territory, which is what makes us all so excited at this moment."

'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'.

It is the furthest exploration of any object in the Solar System. It's name is an ancient cartographer's phrase meaning it is "beyond the known world". The pixelated image does not exclude the possibility that Ultima Thule is really two objects in close proximity or in contact. It is thought to be potato-shaped and dark-colored with a touch of red, possibly from being zapped by cosmic rays for eons.

That better data won't take long to start turning up. What we know about the object now is that it's about 35 by 15 kilometers. But Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute who is principal investigator for the $800 million mission, which explored Pluto in 2015, said he was confident. "We will find out".

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