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.

'Dozens missing' after fatal blast at apartment block
Local ambulance-service officials said seven people, including two children, were hospitalized. Cabinet officials were heading to the city to oversee the rescue efforts.

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.

Related:

Comments

Latest news

Right-Wing Populist Jair Bolsonaro Sworn In As President Of Brazil
They were surrounded by dozens of guards on horses and plain-clothes bodyguards who ran beside the auto . Right-winger Jair Bolsonaro keen to turn country into bastion of conservatism in Latin America .

Keys To Victory Revisited: Notre Dame Offense vs. Clemson
That was also where they got their last major postseason victory, with wins over Texas A&M to cap the 1992 and 1993 seasons. The Crimson Tide will be going for their sixth national championship in Saban's 12 seasons.

Philippine storm death toll surges to 68
The tropical depression, which has since been downgraded to a low pressure area, left the Philippines on this afternoon. Rescue teams were still searching for several missing in the affected areas, emergency officials said.

6 people injured at BWI Airport from partial jet bridge collapse
An airbridge is the enclosed, movable passageway between the terminal and an aircraft, permitting passengers to board and deplane. While medics were helping the passenger outside the plane, the jet bridge experienced a failure, Southwest Airlines said.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin accepts Pittsburgh’s fate after Ravens’ win over Browns
The Steelers did manage to narrowly avoid disaster and beat the lowly Bengals , but it was too little, too late. The NFL Injury Report for Week 17 has a lot of big names that could miss some pretty important games.

Lady Gaga Unveils Anime Cyborg at Her Las Vegas Show
Pop star Lady Gaga began her two-year Las Vegas residency on Friday with a supernatural, space themed set titled Enigma . Elements of the ENIGMA show were created via motion capture and CGI, capturing elements of Gaga's own movements.

Absolutely Fabulous stars lead tributes to Dame June Whitfield
And she remained committed to radio throughout her career, most notably being Roy Hudd's versatile sidekick on his News Huddlines. Often playing the female stooge to some of Britain's most famous entertainers, she called herself "a comic's tart".

Warriors won't match Cavs' offer sheet for Patrick McCaw
McCaw appears more than ready to move on from the Warriors, and had been negotiating with other teams as the season progressed. The Cavaliers or Warriors could waive McCaw before January 7 and not be responsible for paying the remainder of his contract.

Bangladesh polls: Sheikh Hasina wins new term as prime minister
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gestures after casting her vote during the general election in Dhaka , Bangladesh, Dec. 30, 2018. The leadership of Bangladesh has alternated between Hasina and Zia, allies-turned-foes, over the last three decades.

Philadelphia Eagles claim final NFC spot with help from Chicago Bears
Their long-shot scenario is starting the postseason in Los Angeles, if they lose to the Bears and the Rams and Eagles lose, too. If the Vikings win, the most likely scenario would be a return trip to Soldier Field for a playoff game on January 5 or 6.

Dana White On Brock Lesnar, The Rock's Touching Gift To His Mother
The fact that bantamweight champion Nunes did that was jaw-dropping in its own right, but how she did was even more wonderful . Jon "Bones" Jones and Alexander Gustafsson will rematch in the main event for the vacant light heavyweight championship.

Personal details of North Korean defectors stolen after hackers target resettling agency
North Korean hackers have in the past been accused of cyberattacks on South Korean state agencies and businesses. The ministry added that this was the first ever large-scale leak of such kind involving North Korean defectors.

Lions fool Packers, get TD pass from kicker on fake FG
Joe Philbin is serving as the Packers' interim head coach for the remainder of the 2018 season. Rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling led the team in receiving with three catches for 43 yards.

Sears could face liquidation without last-minute buyer
The company filed for bankruptcy in October and was in the process of closing 180 stores before announcing 80 more on Friday. For much of the 20th century it was not only the nation's largest retailer, it was the largest private-sector employer.

Orange Bowl: 3 keys to Alabama’s win over Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
Maybe Williams wanted to say his teammate Tua Tagovailoa should have gotten the Heisman over Murray? "You know, it's football". This season, Murray has stunned defenses with the strength of his arm and the quickness of his feet. "Nobody expected this.

Other news