NASA'sNew Horizons spacecraft pulled off the most distant exploration of another world Tuesday, skimming past a tiny, icy object 4 billion miles from Earth that looks to be shaped like a bowling pin. This pristine, primordial history should allow scientists to tease out important clues about the history of the Kuiper Belt, the distant and unknown menagerie of objects beyond Neptune, along with insights to the formation and migration of the planets.
An artist's conception of what Ultima Thule might look like.
The flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.
After zipping past Pluto in 2015, snapping breathtaking photos and revolutionizing our understanding of the dwarf planet, the New Horizons probe has drifted farther and deeper into the solar system.
New Horizons is moving faster than 30,000 miles an hour, meaning that its zip past the odd object really needed to be pulled off without even the slightest interference.
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.
Real-time video of the actual flyby is impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive. Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. It will take nearly two years before all of the data can be downloaded.
Scientists made a decision to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which was launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet. But the spacecraft will scan two dozen other Kuiper belt objects with its modest telescope, in the hopes of extrapolating its findings from MU69 to the broader belt.
Scientists believe there should be no rings or moons around Ultima Thule that might endanger New Horizons.
Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the northernmost point on Earth. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.
"Even less than a day away, Ultima Thule remains an enigma to us, but the final countdown has begun", said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
A visualization of the New Horizons spacecraft flying by Ultima Thule on New Year's Day. NASA launched the probe in 2006; it's about the size of a baby grand piano.
One scientist confirmed the good news: "We have a healthy spacecraft. What we're going to get next is the stuff that we didn't expect", Dr. Gwyn said.
"Reaching Ultima Thule from 4 billion miles away is an incredible achievement", Adam Hamilton, president and CEO of the Southwest Research Institute, said in the statement. Temperatures here are close to absolute zero because the region is so far from the sun.
On December 22, the United States government shut down for the third time this year.
Yesterday, on the very edge of our solar system, its mission reached its climax when the New Horizons probe hurtled past a mass of rock that has drifted undisturbed for four billion years.
The transmission broke a tense moment of silence as science team leaders who have been with the New Horizons project for more than two decades waited for their first contact since the flyby.
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