New Horizons Spaceship Encounters Ultima Thule, the World Awaits Historic Photo

NASA Spacecraft Beams Back First Images of Ultima Thule

With New Horizons out of contact with Earth from late Monday afternoon until Tuesday morning, Mission Control was pretty much empty, with all the festivities centered at a nearby campus building.

As revellers watched fireworks exploding in the night sky, billions of kilometres beyond the spectacle, NASA's New Horizons probe quietly notched up another fantastic first - making its closest approach to the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft. The craft is now so far from Earth that it takes six hours and eight minutes to receive a command sent from Earth.

The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 1/2 years after New Horizons' unprecedented swing past Pluto.

But even as the world awaits news from the far reaches of the solar system, New Horizons has once again made it to the history books.

Just as the new year began, so too did an incredible new era of space exploration, with NASA confirming a successful flyby of the most distant world human beings have ever encountered.

"The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation", he said.

Stephen Gwyn, an astronomer and data specialist with Canada's National Research Council who is participating in the mission, said the image has already solved one mystery: how the oblong-shaped Ultima Thule can rotate without changing its brightness.

What does it look like?

.

This composite image 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. It was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope. In the meantime, they have released the closest image taken of Ultima just before the flyby.

The spaceship was to collect 900 images over the course of a few seconds as it shaved by.

The Ultima Thule rendezvous was more complicated, given its 4 billion-mile (6.4 billion-kilometre) distance from Earth, the much closer gap between the spacecraft and its target, and all the unknowns surrounding Ultima Thule.

'This explains why, in earlier images taken before Ultima was resolved, its brightness didn't appear to vary as it rotated.

"Go New Horizons!" said lead scientist Alan Stern as a crowd cheered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to mark the moment at 12:33am (1.33pm Hong Kong time) when the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock four.

It's spinning through space - from our perspective - like a propeller blade, Weaver said.

Researchers are interested in small objects in the far reaches of the solar system, asteroids and comets, because they could contain clues to the solar systems origin story. However, it is also possible that the image shows two smaller objects orbiting each other.

As the probe flies 3,500km 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.

"We're very confident in the spacecraft and very confident in the plan that we have for the exploration of Ultima", said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, at a December 31 press conference.

When the probe was launched in 2006 it had two goals.

"Today is the day we explore worlds farther than ever in history!"

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