New Horizons Probe Flies By Distant Asteroid Ultima Thule

Cesar Mills
January 1, 2019

Space exploration history has been made by Nasa's New Horizons probe, which has been recording imagery from the furthest a spacecraft has ever been sent.

NASA's New Horizons probe is ringing in the new year by swinging by Ultima Thule, a small object in the Kuiper asteroid belt. NASA says Ultima Thule is likely the most primitive planetary object ever explored.

At the moment, Ultima Thule is little more than a pixel of light on New Horizon's imaging instruments. "We're a billion miles further than Pluto, and now we're going to keep going into the Kuiper Belt".

Scientists at NASA are celebrating after receiving messages from its New Horizons probe, 6.5 billion km away.

Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft made its closest approach within 2,200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule. In addition to the webcast, Alan Stern and the rest of the New Horizons mission team continues to answer questions from the public in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) forum.

The latest image of Ultima Thule from New Horizons, taken on December 30, 2018, when the spacecraft was at a distance of 1.9 million kilometres.

The high-tech piece of kit survived its flyby of the 30km-wide Ultima Thule and managed to collect a host of pictures, measurements, and other data from the mission. In fact, it takes more than six hours for radio signals carrying information from New Horizons to deliver the data to NASA's Deep Space Network.

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FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule," indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Researchers are interested in small objects in the far reaches of the solar system, asteroids and comets, because they could contain clues to the solar systems origin story. And New Horizons is a 13-year-old spacecraft; its power generator produces less wattage than it used to, which means operators must carefully prioritize their use of remaining fuel.

When New Horizons launched in 2006, it had Pluto in its sights. The high-resolution images of Ultima Thule are scheduled to be received and released back on Earth on Wednesday, January 2, truly revealing this distant body to the world for the first time.

"It is probably the best time capsule we've ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it, " Stern said.

"We know it's not round", John Spencer, a New Horizons deputy project scientist, told reporters today (Mon, Dec 31). "What we'll very soon learn about this primordial building block of our solar system will exponentially expand our knowledge of this relatively unknown third region of space". Ultima Thule's birthplace is important to scientists, because it's a historic part of the solar system and its temperature is barely above absolute zero, which is why it has a chilly appearance. "You can't get any better than that".

It is roughly 20 miles long and shaped like a giant peanut.

Other reports by GizPress

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