NASA space probe 'phones home' in landmark mission to solar system's edge

The flyby took place at 12.33 EST today, but because New Horizons is so far away it takes around six hours to send data back to mission control at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.

"This is a night none of us are going to forget", said Queen guitarist Brian May - who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics - and who recorded a solo track to honor the spacecraft and its spirit of exploration. But NASA and JHUAPL were able to stream live webcasts and photos of the flyby.

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule," indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt, a frigid expanse beyond Neptune that is also known as the Twilight Zone, Ultima Thule is believed to date back 4.5 billion years to the formation of our solar system.

"The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation", he said. Now, it is heading towards the edge of the solar system and will shortly reach Ultima Thule, where it will complete a historic flyby.

But the encounter itself is risky, and if the spacecraft were to collide with a speck of space debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly, mission managers warned.

For that reason, Stern said he and his colleagues were "on pins and needles to see how this turns out".

What does it look like?

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.

A blurred and pixelated image released Monday, taken from 1.2 million miles away, has intrigued scientists because it appears to show an elongated blob, not a round space rock.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is heading for a January 1 flyby of Ultima Thule an icy object in the Kuiper Belt on the outer limits of the solar system
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Stern said his bet is that the object is a single body, not two pieces orbiting each other, but he would wait until more, clearer images arrive Wednesday to say for sure.

"I don't know about all of you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far, " lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute said to applause.

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

Ultima Thule was discovered only four years ago, and its orbit and surroundings still aren't well known.

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

"There's a lot of chatter in the science team room", Spencer said.

This is truly unlike any object we've explored, elsewhere in our solar system! "We'll find out Tuesday".

The twin planetary feats coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when United States astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 in December, 1968.

But New Horizons will finally fly by its target just after midnight on January 1, taking close-up photographs and sophisticated scientific measurements of what it sees.

  • Joey Payne