New Horizons to return images of Ultima Thule flyby

NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW

In fact, retrieving information from New Horizons is so delayed that even NASA doesn't know with certainty that the spacecraft pulled off its mission without a hitch.

While the encounter might have taken place just after midnight on NYE, it wasn't until about six hours later that scientists at NASA, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute actually received the first images of the flyby, thanks to the incredible distance the data had to be transmitted across space.

It is the farthest away from the Sun any spacecraft has ever investigated an object, with New Horizons taking over 13 years to reach the rock.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) long, though there's a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting one another or connected by a slender neck.

New Horizons made its closest approach to 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, at 12:33 a.m.

Stern said the goal was to take images of Ultima that are three times the resolution the team had for Pluto. Scientists wanted the spacecraft staring down Ultima Thule and collecting data, not turning toward Earth to phone home.

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

The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered, blew party horns and jubilantly waved small US flags again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons' closest approach to Ultima Thule.

As the probe flies 2,200 miles (3,540 km) above Thule's surface, scientists hope it will detect the chemical composition of its atmosphere and terrain in what NASA says will be the closest observation of a body so remote.

Still, the best colour close-ups won't be available until February.

As revellers watched fireworks exploding in the night sky, billions of kilometres beyond the spectacle, NASA's New Horizons probe quietly notched up another awesome first - making its closest approach to the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's encounter to be riskier and more hard than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune.

The spacecraft will ping back more detailed images and data from Thule in the coming days, NASA said.

New Horizons will continue to zoom farther away. Many have likely remained the same since the dawn of the solar system, making them essentially time capsules for astronomers.

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on its 4 billion-mile journey toward the solar system's edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.

While celebrating at NASA's headquarters, principal investigator Alan Stern said it would take months to receive the data from today's fly-by. It's name is an ancient cartographer's phrase meaning it is "beyond the known world". "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".

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