NASA's New Horizons Begins Countdown to Ultima Thule Flyby

02 January, 2019, 16:42 | Author: Miranda Cannon
  • An artist's impression of Ultima Thule and NASA's New Horizons probe

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.

Today's 15-minute "Phone Home" transmission was created to let the mission team at APL know that the spacecraft was healthy and successfully recorded readings from its cameras and other scientific instruments. The program is a collaborative effort between NASA, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where scientists navigate and control the spacecraft. He's particularly interested in stereo imaging for this leg of the mission.

Dr Brian May is officially part of the New Horizons team, and drew quite a crowd to his briefing.

At 11:30 a.m., scientists involved with the New Horizons mission released the first images and data returned by the spacecraft.

This artist's illustration obtained from NASA on December 21, 2018 shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 - nicknamed "Ultima Thule" - a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto.

"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".

That data includes high-resolution images of Ultima Thule and spectra that can provide information about its composition. Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other.

Scientist at the American space agency confirmed New Horizons was in a "healthy" condition after passing the icy space rock some hours ago.

It is located in the Kuiper Belt, a huge asteroid belt that surrounds our solar system and contains the leftovers of the system's formation.


The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (1445 GMT).

The confirmation isn't just a relief for the New Horizons team.

But eventually the science team expects to get detailed pictures - plus temperature readings, spectral analyses and particle counts - from a world that's thought to rank among the most primitive types of objects in the solar system.

It's expected to take 20 months for all the data to be downloaded.

New Horizons zipped past Ultima Thule more than three years after its brush with Pluto. Flyby data have already solved one of Ultima's mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons. Based on observations taken since its discovery, watching as the object passed in front of (or "occulted") known background stars, astronomers believe that it is very likely what's known as a "contact binary".

Ultima will soon become the most distant world humanity has ever visited.

Alice Bowman, the New Horizons Mission Operations Manager, known as "MOM" received the updates from mission engineers, who one by one called in their status as green. This marks the farthest-ever flyby in human history - at about 4 billion miles from the Sun, Ultima Thule makes Pluto seem like a next-door neighbor by comparison. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement".

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune.

Once the flyby happens and mission scientists understand more about just what Ultima Thule is, NASA will choose a formal name to submit to the International Astronomical Union.

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