NASA space probe 'phones home' in landmark mission to solar system's edge

NASA spacecraft’s deep-space flyby a success

As revellers watched fireworks exploding in the night sky, billions of kilometres beyond the spectacle, NASA's New Horizons probe quietly notched up another fantastic first - making its closest approach to the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

Ultima Thule is orbiting in the heart of Kuiper Belt, a debris field of icy bodies - ranging in size from dwarf planets like Pluto to smaller planetesimals and comets - left over from the Solar System's formation 4.6 billion years ago.

"We have a healthy spacecraft", Alice Bowman, mission operations manager for New Horizons, said after signal notification. The high-resolution images of Ultima Thule are scheduled to be received and released back on Earth on Wednesday, January 2, truly revealing this distant body to the world for the first time. That flyby revealed that even little Pluto, more than three billion miles from the sun, is an active world with shifting plains, glaciers and mountains that reach up to about 15,000 feet.

The probe reached the closest point of its flyby at 05:33 British time on New Year's Day, passing Thule at more than 30,000 miles per hour and coming within 2,200 miles of the surface of the 19 mile-wide object.

Joining the celebrations of enthusiastic scientists was Brian May, who is a guitarist with rock band Queen and also an astrophysicist.

To put into perspective just how incredible this is, the probe is two billion km past Neptune - the furthest of the classical planets - and 1.5 billion km past Pluto, which New Horizons studied in 2015.

"It is probably the best time capsule we've ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it, " Stern said.

"The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation", he said. "Also by counting the number and impactors that have hit Ultima Thule, we can learn about the number of small objects in the outer Solar System".

What does it look like?

. The mysterious target nicknamed Ultima Thule (TOO-lee) is 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) from Earth.

Asteroid 2014 MU69 was discovered via the Hubble orbital telescope back in 2014.

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In images taken Sunday night, Ultima Thule appeared as little more than an elongated white smear against the darkness of space.

The spaceship was to collect 900 images over the course of a few seconds as it shaved by. Clear images so far are only artists' renderings.

"We hardly know anything about it", says Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, at APL.

"It's really a puzzle", said Stern in a statement last week.

Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.

Scientists, engineers, their families and others who gathered to mark the event at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, erupted in cheers as mission controllers announced that New Horizons had phoned home as scheduled.

"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver. 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.

"Today is the day we explore worlds farther than ever in history!"

"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft that will continue after we're long gone here on Earth", she said. NASA launched the probe in 2006.



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