Published: Wed, January 02, 2019
Entertaiment | By Minnie Bishop

NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

The New Horizons flyby of 2014 MU69, aptly nicknamed Ultima Thule for a Latin phrase meaning beyond the known world, will not only be the most distant planetary encounter in human history, but the object will also be the most primitive world ever visited by spacecraft.

Increasingly rich, detailed images of Ultima will start arriving on January 2, but already the deep space object looks elongated, not round, said New Horizons deputy project scientist John Spencer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Maryland headquarters of the New Horizons program.

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

Scientists do not yet have a clear picture of exactly what Ultima Thule is, whether a single object or a cluster, spanning about 19 miles (30 kilometers) in diameter. Many have likely remained the same since the dawn of the solar system, making them essentially time capsules for astronomers.

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.

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

May debuted a music composition written in honour of the event.

A tiny, icy world a billion miles beyond Pluto is getting a New Year's Day visitor.

The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto opened the new year at an even more distant world.

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The US space agency planned to ring in the New Year with a live online broadcast to mark the spacecraft´s zoom past the mysterious object located about four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.

'An even more freaky scenario is one in which Ultima is surrounded by many tiny tumbling moons, ' said University of Virginia's Anne Verbiscer, a New Horizons assistant project scientist. Scientists say there are two possibilities: Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another. Scientists wanted the spacecraft staring down Ultima Thule and collecting data, not turning toward Earth to phone home.

The object Ultima Thule, the nickname for 2014 MU69, was discovered by Marc Buie of Southwest Research Institute in 2014, in an extraordinary search among millions of stars imaged for the objective with the Hubble Space Telescope.

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft", Stern said at a news conference Monday.

"This is another great step in the exploration of our solar system".

Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Ultima Thule, New Horizons has sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima Thule's shape.

The observations should help scientists ascertain how deep-freeze objects like Ultima Thule formed, along with the rest of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.

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. "We'll find out Tuesday".

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