NASA's tremendous success one billion miles beyond Pluto

NASA's tremendous success one billion miles beyond Pluto

NASA's tremendous success one billion miles beyond Pluto

Next steps: The observation of the mysterious object comes 3.5 years after New Horizons gave us our best ever look at Pluto and 12 years since New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral.

New Horizons' mission was to collect data, including thousands of photographs, of Ultima Thule, a frozen world on the Kuiper belt about one billion miles beyond the farthest known major planet, Neptune.

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 each other or connected by a slender neck.

Scientists want New Horizons observing Ultima Thule, not phoning home.

We do know that Ultima Thule has a reddish colour, probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years.

Since temperatures this far from the Sun are barely above absolute zero - mummifying temperatures that preserves Kuiper Belt objects - they are essentially time capsules of the ancient past, the USA space agency said.

But Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute who is principal investigator for the $800 million mission, which explored Pluto in 2015, said he was confident. Once received, the signals confirmed that the flyby had taken place and that New Horizons was operating perfectly. The team delayed the transmission so it didn't interfere with any observations so it was a full ten hours later before the probe could confirm that the mission was a success. "Nothing like it has ever been explored", Stern said in a statement. The challenge was all the greater because scientists did not yet have a suitable Kuiper Belt object in mind when New Horizons was launched. Ultima Thule is about 44 AU from the Sun on average, or roughly 4 billion miles from Earth.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has survived humanity's most distant exploration of another world.

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The program is a collaborative effort between NASA, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where scientists navigate and control the spacecraft.

"Think about it - we're a billion miles further than Pluto."

"We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", mission operations manager Alice Bowman said. It was also used to create the star catalog that calibrated Hubble images of the object, CFHT representatives say, which has allowed for New Horizons to change its course correctly in order to observe Ultima Thule. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once new and better pictures arrive.

New Horizons will continue to zoom farther away.

Weaver said later this week the team will be able to see clearer images revealing whether there are craters on Ultima Thule's surface and other details. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left.

Just 33 minutes into the new year local time, New Horizon's will swoop some 2,200 miles above Ultima, capturing detailed snapshots of the uncharted world. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.

"The data we have look fantastic and we're already learning about Ultima from up close".

Located more than 6bn km from the sun, the minor planet is an object that NASA researchers believe to be an important piece of evidence in the investigation of how our solar system formed, and is the farthest ever observed up close by humankind. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto.

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