NASA Makes Space History With Distant Fly-By

NASA Makes Space History With Distant Fly-By

NASA Makes Space History With Distant Fly-By

The ancient Greeks and Romans used the name Ultima Thule to refer to a distant place lurking just beyond the borders of the known world.

"Ultima Thule will be turned into a real world", team member and planetary scientist Hal Weaver said.

Now, New Horizons will beam the first information and images from this close flyby back to Earth.

"It's a better pixelated blob", said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "There are a lot ideas and every one of them might be wrong". "We'll find out Tuesday".

The encounter with Ultima is among the more hard feats NASA has attempted. Flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, received word from the spacecraft on Tuesday, 10 hours after the middle-of-the-night encounter. The flyby will be covered on the lab's website, its YouTube channel and NASA TV.

Tired from dual countdowns late Monday and early Tuesday, the New Horizons team members were visibly anxious as they reassembled in late morning. Asteroids became a popular destination too: Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft touched down on the asteroid Ryugu in October and collected a sample that will return to Earth in 2020.

Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa.

"We have a healthy spacecraft", Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman said.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto.

The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (1:45am AEDT, Wednesday), letting NASA know if New Horizons survived the risky, high-speed encounter.

The flyby will be fast, at a speed of nine miles per second.

Until the 1990s, no one knew what hid out here, where sunlight is 0.05 as faint as it is on Earth.

There is no champagne in this dim and distant region, where a halo of icy worlds called the Kuiper belt circles the outermost edge of the solar system. This will provide insight about what it was like as our solar system was forming 4.5 billion years ago and how small planets like Pluto formed. Not only is Ultima Thule the most distant planetary object ever explored, it is also likely the most primitive.

After discovery by the Hubble Space Telescope, a series of ground observations were carried out to measure Ultima Thule during an occultation-as it passed in front of a background star and blocked out some of the starlight. The image (above) revealed what looked like a peanut or bowling pin, some 32 kilometers long by 16 kilometers wide, with a slight possibility still that MU69 could be a binary object.

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 believe there should be no rings or moons around Ultima Thule that might endanger New Horizons.

New Horizons is moving faster than 48,280km an hour, meaning that its zip past the unusual object really needed to be pulled off without even the slightest interference.

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

May was at Mission Control for the event, and today released the track New Horizons, his first solo single since 1998, on YouTube.

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