New Horizons Unveils First Photo Of Ultima Thule After Historic Flyby

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / James Tuttle Keane

Almost exactly 10 hours after New Horizons flew past Ultima Thule during mankind’s most distant flyby of an object in our solar system, the intrepid spacecraft has beamed back its first photos from the close encounter with this small frozen world inside the Kuiper Belt.

At 10:29 a.m. EST, New Horizons phoned home to let everyone know that it survived its brush with Ultima Thule, mission officials from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland, announced on the New Horizons website.

“We have a healthy spacecraft, we’ve just accomplished the most distant flyby,” Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman said during a live webcast of the signal acquisition, streamed on YouTube and on NASA Live starting from 10:15 a.m. EST.

“We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmission, science to help us understand the origins of our solar system.”

According to Discover magazine, the signal from New Horizons was picked up by NASA’s Deep Space Network in Madrid, Spain. After radioing back engineering information to confirm the success of the Ultima Thule flyby, the probe also unveiled the first photo of this mysterious distant object, revealing surprising details about its shape and size.

Captured during the spacecraft’s closest approach to Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. EST on New Year’s Day, the photo shows that the icy object has a shape similar to a bowling pin.

The new photo is a composite image of two separate snapshots taken by New Horizons’ high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).

“Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide,” stated APL officials, noting that a sharper pic of Ultima Thule will be released on January 2.

Whether the enigmatic Kuiper Belt object is a single body or a binary structure remains to be established. For now, the new photo has enabled scientists to infer the rotation pattern of Ultima Thule, something that had remained unknown up to this point, reports Spaceflight Now.

“Flyby data have already solved one of Ultima’s mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons. This explains why, in earlier images taken before Ultima was resolved, its brightness didn’t appear to vary as it rotated.”

Epic Milestone For The New Horizons Mission

The confirmation of the successful flyby means that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has just become the first man-made probe to visit a celestial body 3.8 billion miles away from Earth, at the edge of the solar system. This is the farthest flyby in the history of human space exploration, the Inquisitr reported earlier today.

“New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history — 4 billion miles from the sun,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

“The data we have look fantastic and we’re already learning about Ultima from up close. From here out the data will just get better and better!”

Launched in January, 2006, the probe has led humanity on its first exploration of Pluto, which it visited on July 14, 2015. Three-and-a-half years later, New Horizons made history once again with an epic flyby of Ultima Thule, venturing even deeper into the Kuiper Belt to sail the uncharted waters of this far-off region of deep space.

During today’s flyby, the New Horizons spacecraft came as close as 2,200 miles from Ultima Thule. That’s more than three times closer than its historic flyby of Pluto, the Inquisitr previously reported.

In a tweet posted a few hours ago, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine congratulated the New Horizons team on their incredible achievement.

Stay tuned for more details on New Horizons’ epic flyby of Ultima Thule.