NASA spacecraft survives flyby of most distant object ever explored

NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW

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 object is so old and pristine that it's essentially like going back in time to the beginning of our solar system. That data includes high-resolution images of Ultima Thule and spectra that can provide information about its composition. In this case, the probe will literally sweep past Ultima Thule at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour (51,000 kilometers per hour or about 14.6 kilometers per second).

If New Horizons sounds familiar, it's because this is the spacecraft that conducted a historic flyby of Pluto in 2015, sending back unprecedented images of the dwarf planet and revealing new details about Pluto and its moons.

Scientists say it will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its observations of Ultima Thule, a full billion miles beyond Pluto.

The feat has been compared to photographing a flower by the side of the road from the window of a speeding auto at night.

Real-time video of the actual flyby was impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, and another six hours for the response to arrive.

The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the "third zone" in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12:33 a.m. this morning ET - but NASA did not receive confirmation it was a success until 10:31am.

May says there's "nothing more exciting in the world of exploration than going to a place about which we know nothing".

NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW
NASA spaceship nears edge of Solar System — Ultima Thule

Ten hours after the middle-of-the-night encounter 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away, flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, received word from the spacecraft late Tuesday morning.

Though the closest point of the flyby, only 2,200 miles above Ultima Thule's surface, occurred just after midnight, the spacecraft was pointed at the object for a few more hours with its antenna, rigidly locked to the spacecraft body, pointing away from Earth.

New Horizons will continue to explore the Kuiper Belt, the unexplored region of the solar system beyond Neptune that is filled with small objects orbiting the Sun (like Ultima Thule and Pluto). Ultima Thule was chosen as the next target after an intensive search that made use of observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope. "From here out, the data will just get better and better".

Ultima will soon become the most distant world humanity has ever visited. However, there is also a chance that Ultima Thule is two objects in orbit around each other. It indicates Ultima Thule has an irregular "bilobate" shape, like a bowling pin, and that it is rotating like a propeller, said project scientist Hal Weaver.

"The data that we've got so far shows that we were right. This is exploration at its finest", said Adam L. Hamilton, president and CEO of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth. When a solid radio link finally was acquired and team members reported that their spacecraft systems were green, or good, she declared with relief: "We have a healthy spacecraft".

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