New Horizons’ Rendezvous With Ultima Thule Went Off Without a Hitch, NASA Says

An illustration of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 – nicknamed “Ultima Thule” – a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto. Set for New Year’s 2019, New Horizons’ exploration of Ultima will be the farthest space probe flyby in history. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

January 2, 2019

By Deborah Netburn

Four billion miles from Earth, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sped past a small, cold Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule Monday night, collecting data on the most distant world ever visited by humankind.

The flyby occurred at 9:33 p.m. Pacific Time, exactly as planned, but mission leaders didn’t receive word that the spacecraft had survived the encounter until 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“We have a healthy spacecraft; we just accomplished the most distant flyby. We are ready for science transmission,” said Alice Bowman, operations manager for the mission at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

The delay was stressful, but inevitable.

New Horizons was not in contact with Earth during the flyby to ensure that all its energy was directed toward collecting data, mission planners said.

And when the spacecraft finally did send the all-clear message to Earth, it took the signal 6 1/2 hours moving at the speed of light to traverse distance between it and Earth.

Ultima Thule is deep in the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut-shaped region of space beyond the orbit of Neptune that is dotted with hundreds of thousands of icy objects.

The small world, about 20 miles in diameter, is part of a group of objects that populate an area of the Kuiper Belt known as the cold classical belt. Scientists believe that those worlds have remained in a stable, circular orbit around the sun for 4.5 billion years, frozen in time at the far reaches of the solar system.

For that reason, Ultima Thule could represent the most pristine example yet of the original disk of gas and dust from which the planets formed.

The first images of the object will be released Wednesday. “The public will see it for the first time almost exactly when we see it, so we’ll be sharing the wonder of exploration with everyone,” Bowman said.

Nobody knows yet if Ultima Thule is active or dormant, or if its surface is smooth or pockmarked by craters.

It might have moons or rings. There is a chance that it could be two objects orbiting each other.

“Anything is possible out there in this very unknown region of the solar system,” said John Spencer, deputy project scientist for the New Horizons mission.

———

©2019 Los Angeles Times

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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