New Horizons explores most distant object ever visited

New Horizons explores most distant object ever visited

New Horizons explores most distant object ever visited

Well Mark... NASA scientists confirmed on New Year's Day that the New Horizons spacecraft made contact with Earth to confirm its successful flyby of Ultima Thule.

This time, the drama was set to unfold more than 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth, so far away that it will be 10 hours before flight controllers find out whether the spacecraft survived the flyby. The first fuzzy pictures of Ultima Thule show that it seems to be spinning and is about 22 miles long by 9 miles wide and shaped a bit like a peanut.

Officially designated 2014 MU69, it was nicknamed "Ultima Thule," a Latin phrase meaning "a place beyond the known world", after a public call for name recommendations.

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we'll know how we did", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said during the news conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006.

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.

Ultima lies 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, in a ring of icy worlds known as the Kuiper Belt. Confirmation was not expected for hours, though, given the vast distance.

Lead planetary scientist for New Horizons, Alan Stern, said Ultima Thule is unique because it is a relic from the early days of the solar system and could provide answers about the origins of other planets.

As for New Horizons, scientists say the probe will continue studying the Kuiper Belt through at least April 2021, the end of its now funded extended mission operations.

It is the farthest away from the Sun any spacecraft has ever investigated an object, with New Horizons taking over 13 years to reach the rock.

"Congratulations to NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

By then, New Horizons will be on its way out of the solar system to roam the Milky Way galaxy for eternity, a fact that mission operations manager Alice Bowman said has stayed with her through the tension and excitement of the once-in-a-lifetime flyby.

"We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed - we think".

However, Nasa did also suggest that it could still be "two objects orbiting each other", so this particular case hasn't been cracked entirely. Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left.

The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto opened the new year at an even more distant world, a billion miles beyond.

Located more than 6bn km from the sun, the minor planet is an object that NASA researchers believe to be an important piece of evidence in the investigation of how our solar system formed, and is the farthest ever observed up close by humankind.

Stephen Gwyn, an astronomer and data specialist with Canada's National Research Council who is participating in the mission, said the image has already solved one mystery: how the oblong-shaped Ultima Thule can rotate without changing its brightness.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years.

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