Spacecraft flies past most distant world ever studied by humankind

Spacecraft flies past most distant world ever studied by humankind

Spacecraft flies past most distant world ever studied by humankind

Scientists are analyzing Ultima Thule, which is orbiting in the center of the Kuiper Belt, a group of icy bodies that range in size from dwarf planets to comets. That flyby revealed that even little Pluto, more than three billion miles from the sun, is an active world with shifting plains, glaciers and mountains that reach up to about 15,000 feet.

Scientist have puzzled over why Ultima Thule does not appear to change in brightness, which would be expected of an elongated object that alternately shows its short and long sides as it rotates.

The image was captured at 11:56 a.m. ET on Sunday, when the probe was still 1.2 million miles away from Ultima Thule ("Ul-ti-ma Too-lee"), which is within an icy region of the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt.

"From mission design to navigation to operations, our team worked very hard to get the spacecraft where it needs to be for this historic exploration in the Kuiper Belt", said New Horizons mission operations manager Dr. Alice Bowman, also from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away", said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern in a statement cited by Space.com. "We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft", Stern said at a news conference Monday.

At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft, scientists will count down to the moment of New Horizons' closest approach, at 12:33 a.m.

If you've chose to stay in on New Year's Eve - and Julie Beck of The Atlantic highly recommends that you do - there's an opportunity for you to watch a NASA spacecraft zoom by a unique space rock.

Despite the partial US government shutdown, sparked by a feud over funding for a border wall with Mexico between President Donald Trump and opposition Democrats, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine vowed that the USA space agency would broadcast the flyby.

Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 mph (51,500 kph), the spacecraft aims to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule.

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After trekking 1 billion miles beyond Pluto into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will now seek clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets. It was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope and added to the spacecraft's itinerary.

But much of Ultima's mystery will diminish in the next few days.

Engineers sent New Horizon's its final command on December 30 at 9 a.m. EST to redirect the images.

This artist's impression of Ultima Thule depicts it as a contact binary, two smaller objects that orbit each other and are so close that they touch.

Ultima Thule is so dim and so distant that scientists aren't even certain what it looks like.

"We are ready to science the heck out of Ultima Thule", Stern said.

"Who knows what we might find?".

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.

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