While the rest of the world was preparing to ring in the new year, an intrepid NASA mission was getting ready to make history with the farthest flyby ever performed by a man-made spacecraft. Three years after its glorious visit to Pluto, the New Horizons probe zipped past Ultima Thule bright and early on New Year’s Day — achieving yet another epic flyby, the second one in its 13-year career.
As the Inquisitr reported earlier today, New Horizons darted past the small icy world in the Kuiper Belt some 30 minutes into the new year, ushering in 2019 with an incredible milestone. Scheduled for 12:33 a.m. EST on January 1, the close encounter with Ultima Thule will be officially confirmed later today, as NASA is still waiting for New Horizons to get in touch with mission control. The big event is currently being aired by NASA Live and the Johns Hopkins APL YouTube channel.
Located 3.8 billion miles away, or about 1 billion miles beyond the orbit of Pluto, Ultima Thule lies on the fringes of the solar system. Given the vast distance between Earth and the frozen alien world, it will take at least six hours for the spacecraft’s signal to reach our planet, notes Space.
While the science data from the historic Ultima Thule flyby is yet to be received — and will be made public during two press briefings on January 2 and 3, as previously reported by the Inquisitr — New Horizons has already given us a taste of what’s to come. On the eve of the highly anticipated flyby, the probe snapped a close-up view of the enigmatic Ultima Thule, NASA announced yesterday.
Captured on December 30 from a distance of around 1.2 million miles away, the new photos unveil tantalizing clues about the shape of Ultima Thule. According to Space, the images show that this mysterious ancient object, believed to date back to the formation of our solar system, is not round — as scientists initially thought — but actually oval-shaped and elongated.
Reporting from the base of New Horizons operations at APL in Laurel, Maryland, Space’s Tariq Malik shared the snapshots on social media, providing much-needed coverage of the event amid the partial government shutdown that is currently limiting NASA’s public outreach capabilities.
“Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima’s shape,” APL officials said in a statement published on the mission’s website.
“Image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide. This shape roughly matches the outline of Ultima’s shadow that was seen in observations of the object passing in front of a star made from Argentina in 2017 and Senegal in 2018.”
Thirty-seven hours after the new photos were taken, New Horizons zoomed past Ultima Thule at 32,000 miles per hour, coming in at 2,200 miles from its icy surface during the probe’s closest approach to the mysterious Kuiper Belt resident.
“Even less than a day away, Ultima Thule remains an enigma to us, but the final countdown has begun,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
“The object is in such a deep freeze that it’s essentially preserved from its initial formation. Everything that we’re going to learn about Ultima, from its composition to its geology to how it’s assembled, are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of the solar system.”
While very exciting, the latest photos still leave many unanswered questions about Ultima Thule and are not clear enough to establish whether the icy world is a single object or a binary asteroid, as scientists have speculated. More detailed images of Ultima Thule are expected later today and in the upcoming days, as New Horizons is slated to beam back a wealth of data from its epic flyby in the near future.
Over the next 20 months, the mission’s team will receive multiple close-up photos of Ultima Thule, as well as all of New Horizons’ complete observations on the distant alien world.
“I am in awe that we can even do this,” said Stern. “The spacecraft has a 15-watt transmitter on it… that’s a quarter of a light bulb. And we’re receiving it from 4 billion miles away.”