NASA


A NASA craft has is believed to have reached the solar system’s outermost region early Tuesday morning, flying close to a space rock 20 miles long and billions of miles from Earth on a mission to gather clues about the creation of the solar system.

The body is farther from Earth than any other that has had such a close encounter with a NASA probe, scientists believe.

The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the ‘third zone’ in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12:33 a.m. Eastern. 

Scientists will not have confirmation of its successful arrival until the probe communicates its whereabouts through NASA’s Deep Space Network at 10:28 a.m. Eastern, about 10 hours later.

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NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past the mysterious object at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday. The latest images of the object reveal an elongated shape

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past the mysterious object at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday. The latest images of the object reveal an elongated shape

Once it enters the peripheral layer of the belt, containing icy bodies and leftover fragments from the solar system’s creation, the probe will get its first close-up glance of Ultima Thule, a cool mass shaped like a giant peanut, using seven on-board instruments.

Nasa tweeted after the flyby that confirmation of the signal from the spacecraft will be made public at 9.45am

Nasa tweeted after the flyby that confirmation of the signal from the spacecraft will be made public at 9.45am

Nasa tweeted after the flyby that confirmation of the signal from the spacecraft will be made public at 9.45am

The first image of Ultima Thule’s shape was taken during the spacecraft’s approach but clearer pictures are not expected for some time as it can take several hours for radio signals to reach Earth from that far away.

Flight controllers said everything looked good for New Horizons’ flyby of the tiny, icy object nicknamed Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. on Tuesday. 

The mysterious, ancient target is 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) from Earth and is in the Kuiper Belt.

Scientists wanted New Horizons observing Ultima Thule during the encounter, not phoning home. So they had to wait until late morning before learning whether the spacecraft survived.

The green segment of the line shows where New Horizons has traveled since launch while the red indicates the spacecraft's future path

The green segment of the line shows where New Horizons has traveled since launch while the red indicates the spacecraft's future path

The green segment of the line shows where New Horizons has traveled since launch while the red indicates the spacecraft’s future path

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Instead, hundreds of team members and their guests gathered nearby on campus for back-to-back countdowns.

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

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following Tuesday’s official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won’t be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in color, it is hoped.

‘We set a record. Never before has a spacecraft explored anything so far away,’ said the project’s lead scientist who led the countdown to the close encounter, Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute. ‘Think of it. We’re a billion miles farther than Pluto.’

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (C) of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, celebrating with school children at the exact moment that the New Horizons spacecraft made the closest approach of Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule on Tuesday, January 1

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (C) of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, celebrating with school children at the exact moment that the New Horizons spacecraft made the closest approach of Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule on Tuesday, January 1

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (C) of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, celebrating with school children at the exact moment that the New Horizons spacecraft made the closest approach of Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule on Tuesday, January 1

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's footsteps on the moon in July 1969. People celebrate above

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's footsteps on the moon in July 1969. People celebrate above

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps on the moon in July 1969. People celebrate above

A handout photo made available by NASA shows New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (4-R), New Horizons project manager Helene Winters (3-R), Fred Pelletier (2-R), lead of the project navigation team and New Horizons co-investigator John Spencer (R) attending a press conference prior to the flyby of Ultima Thule by the New Horizons spacecraft, in Laurel, Maryland

A handout photo made available by NASA shows New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (4-R), New Horizons project manager Helene Winters (3-R), Fred Pelletier (2-R), lead of the project navigation team and New Horizons co-investigator John Spencer (R) attending a press conference prior to the flyby of Ultima Thule by the New Horizons spacecraft, in Laurel, Maryland

A handout photo made available by NASA shows New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (4-R), New Horizons project manager Helene Winters (3-R), Fred Pelletier (2-R), lead of the project navigation team and New Horizons co-investigator John Spencer (R) attending a press conference prior to the flyby of Ultima Thule by the New Horizons spacecraft, in Laurel, Maryland

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps on the moon in July 1969.

‘Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the ‘giant leap’ of Apollo’s lunar missions,’ Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times. 

New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million mission, was expected to hurtle to within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule, considerably closer than the Pluto encounter of 2015.

Its seven science instruments were to continue collecting data for four hours after the flyby. Then the spacecraft was to turn briefly toward Earth to transmit word of its success. It takes over six hours for radio signals to reach Earth from that far away.

Scientists believe there should be no rings or moons around Ultima Thule that might endanger New Horizons. Traveling at 31,500 mph (50,700 kph), the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle. It’s a tougher encounter than at Pluto because of the distance and the considerable unknowns, and because the spacecraft is older now.

The flyby was fast, at a speed of nine miles (14 kilometers) per second. Seven instruments on board recorded high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition

The flyby was fast, at a speed of nine miles (14 kilometers) per second. Seven instruments on board recorded high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition

The flyby was fast, at a speed of nine miles (14 kilometers) per second. Seven instruments on board recorded high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition

‘I can’t promise you success. We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft,’ Stern said at a news conference Monday. ‘By tomorrow, we’ll know how we did. So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons.’

The risk added to the excitement.

A guitar anthem recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May - who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics - will be released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation of the flyby. Pictured, May at Mission Control.

A guitar anthem recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May - who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics - will be released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation of the flyby. Pictured, May at Mission Control.

A guitar anthem recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May – who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics – will be released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation of the flyby. Pictured, May at Mission Control.

Queen guitarist Brian May, who also happens to be an astrophysicist, joined the team at Johns Hopkins for a midnight premiere of the rock ‘n’ roll song he wrote for the big event.

‘We will never forget this moment,’ said May who led the New Year’s countdown. ‘This is completely unknown territory.’

Despite the government shutdown, several NASA scientists and other employees showed up at Johns Hopkins as private citizens, unwilling to miss history in the making.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth. It was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope and added to New Horizons’ itinerary.

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. As such, it is ‘probably the best time capsule we’ve ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it,’ Stern said.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

New Horizons has spent more than a decade hurtling through the solar system since it launched on Jan 19, 2006 and passed Pluto in 2015. Its messages take to reach us, despite them traveling at the speed of light

New Horizons has spent more than a decade hurtling through the solar system since it launched on Jan 19, 2006 and passed Pluto in 2015. Its messages take to reach us, despite them traveling at the speed of light

New Horizons has spent more than a decade hurtling through the solar system since it launched on Jan 19, 2006 and passed Pluto in 2015. Its messages take to reach us, despite them traveling at the speed of light

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft spotted its next flyby target earlier this year from more than 100 million miles away. In the image, Ultima is enveloped in countless stars, appearing as just a tiny speck amidst the bright spots. The yellow box shows its predicted location

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft spotted its next flyby target earlier this year from more than 100 million miles away. In the image, Ultima is enveloped in countless stars, appearing as just a tiny speck amidst the bright spots. The yellow box shows its predicted location

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft spotted its next flyby target earlier this year from more than 100 million miles away. In the image, Ultima is enveloped in countless stars, appearing as just a tiny speck amidst the bright spots. The yellow box shows its predicted location

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. 

WHAT’S NEXT FOR NEW HORIZONS? 

While NASA has said goodbye to a few of its veteran craft recently, including Cassini and Kepler, New Horizons’ work may not be ending any time soon.

‘The spacecraft is very healthy, it has fueling power to go on for 15, 20 years,’ Prinicipal Investigator Alan Stern told Dailymail.com.

‘And, we’d like to do another flyby. We don’t leave the Kuiper Belt until 2027, 2028.

‘So after we get all the data, that’s what we’re going to do. Work on our next exploration phase.

‘We’re happy about this, it’s an amazing piece of American workmanship this little spacecraft that’s doing so well.’  

It is thought to be potato-shaped and dark-colored  with a touch of red, possibly from being zapped by cosmic rays for eons.

The exact shape and composition won’t be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last almost two years.

‘Who knows what we might find? … Anything’s possible out there in this very unknown region,’ said John Spencer, a deputy project scientist from Southwest Research Institute. ‘We’ll find out soon enough.’

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern told Dailymail.com: ‘It’s going to take us 20 months to get all the data back, because data transmission speed is slow from that distance. 

‘We’ll be sending back data about Ultima Thule for all of 2019 and most of 2020, until August or September,’ Stern says.

The first picture will get to Earth on the 1st, though this will only reveal Ultima’s shape, Stern says.

‘It will just be a few pixels, like a smudge,’ Stern told Dailymail.com.

Finer details are expected to come in the days to follow, with its surface features coming to light on the 3rd and 4th.

WHAT IS ULTIMA THULE? 

The Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

Ultima Thule might not be a single object. Scientists say it's possible it's two or many objects. An artist's impression is pictured 

Ultima Thule might not be a single object. Scientists say it's possible it's two or many objects. An artist's impression is pictured 

Ultima Thule might not be a single object. Scientists say it’s possible it’s two or many objects. An artist’s impression is pictured 

When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot. Good close-up pictures should be available the day after the flyby.

New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of Jan. 1 – 12:33 a.m. EST.

Scientists speculate Ultima Thule could be two objects closely orbiting one another. If a solo act, it’s likely 20 miles (32 kilometers) long at most.

Envision a baked potato. ‘Cucumber, whatever. Pick your favorite vegetable,’ said astronomer Carey Lisse of Johns Hopkins.

It could even be two bodies connected by a neck. If twins, each could be 9 miles to 12 miles (15 kilometers to 20 kilometers) in diameter.

Scientists will map Ultima Thule every possible way. They anticipate impact craters, possibly also pits and sinkholes, but its surface also could prove to be smooth.

-Associated Press 



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