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NASA Tracking Flyby Of Most Distant Space Expedition In Human History

02 January 2019

New Horizons left Earth in January 2006; it was the first mission created to explore the most distant part of the solar system. The spacecraft is believed to have come within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule.

NASA's New Horizons completed a close approach to a small body in the distant Kuiper Belt early January 1, collecting data that may reveal new insights about the formation of the solar system.

It is - and the first decent images of Ultima Thule are likely already on their way back to Earth from the spacecraft.

Every 20 minutes, the spacecraft's cameras and infrared imagers are capturing shots of the space rock, "so as it rotates and we get closer we will get good data on all parts of it as we approach", said John Spencer, a scientist with the Southwest Research Institute. Later, she added to more applause: "We did it again".

The encounter with Ultima is among the more hard feats NASA has attempted. Scientists and other team members embraced and shared high-fives, while the spillover auditorium crowd gave a standing ovation.

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"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

At a news conference later today, the science team will share results that New Horizons sent back before its closest approach to Ultima.

That object - nicknamed Ultima Thule - was first glimpsed at long distance by the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2014, but it wasn't until just now in 2019 that scientists got an up-close look to better understand this mysterious far-flung mass. It's also spinning, although scientists don't yet know how fast. Dust and other material build up between the two, turning them into peanut shape.

An image of Thule, sent overnight and barely more detailed than previous images, deepens the mystery of whether Thule is a single rock shaped like an asymmetrical peanut or actually two rocks orbiting each other, "blurred together due to their proximity", Stern said. As such, it is the most primitive body ever visited by a spacecraft. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once new and better pictures arrive. Ultima Thule essentially means "beyond Thule", which suggests something that lies beyond what is known.

Dr. Stern added that while this week's images should be a dramatic improvement over what is now known about the Kuiper Belt, scientists will not have their best views downloaded until February. Though nerve-wracking for engineers, encounter mode ensures that New Horizons makes the most of its brief time near Ultima Thule.

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From New Horizons' location, a radio transmission traveling at light speed requires just over six hours to reach Earth.

'In effect, Ultima should be a valuable window into the early stages of planet formation and what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago'.

Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like - whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster. Eastern, passing approximately 3,500 kilometers from the Kuiper Belt object. Mission Operations chief Alice Bowman reported on the data successfully received via the Madrid station of the Deep Space Network.

The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the "third zone" in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt on Tuesday morning, with scientists having to anxiously wait for hours for an official confirmation via the probe's communications system.

The flyby comes 3½ years after New Horizons swung past Pluto and yielded the first close-ups of the dwarf planet.

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NASA Tracking Flyby Of Most Distant Space Expedition In Human History