Published: Wed, January 02, 2019
Sci-tech | By Spencer Schmidt

New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW — NASA announcement

New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW — NASA announcement

Part of the delay was due to the fact that New Horizons had to finish loading up the scientific data before it could turn its antenna to transmit back, and another big factor was the 6-hour-plus light travel time for the signals.

Mission scientists from NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have confirmed that the New Horizons spacecraft conducted a flyby of Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object that's a billion miles beyond Pluto.

According to NASA, images captured during the spacecraft's approach, which brought New Horizons to within just 2,200 miles of Ultima at 12:33 a.m. EST, revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles.

The flyby comes three-and-a-half years after New Horizons swung past Pluto and beamed back the first ever close-up images of the dwarf planet.

"This is history making what we're doing, in more ways than one, " Stern said.

These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years.

What does it look like?

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Scientists are not sure exactly 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.

It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, and is believed to be 19-32km in size.

The spaceship was to collect 900 images over the course of a few seconds as it shaved by. The team is expecting the images that will come down in the coming days to be far more intricate, with the most-detailed image being distributed on Thursday (Jan. 3). "This is exploration at its finest", said Adam L. Hamilton, president and CEO of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement.

Mission scientists were relieved about the success because there was only one chance to get it right as New Horizons screamed past Ultima at 31,500 miles per hour.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years. Scientists hope to learn about those origins through New Horizons' observations deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt, or frozen Twilight Zone, on the fringes of the solar system.

"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver.

"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".

"Who knows what we might find?".

Another NASA spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, also set a new record on Monday by entering orbit around the asteroid Bennu, the smallest cosmic object - about 1,600 feet (500 meters) in diameter - ever circled by a spacecraft.

NASA's live stream of the event was very informative, providing details about the mission and animations to show where the spacecraft was in relation to Ultima Thule.

"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. NASA launched the probe in 2006.

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