New Horizons launches on NYE to explore Ultima Thule

New Horizons sweeps past Ultima Thule- described as a bullet intersecting with another bullet

NASA TWITTERNew Horizons sweeps past Ultima Thule- described as a bullet intersecting with another bullet

NASA rang in the New Year on Tuesday (Jan 1) with a historic flyby of the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever explored by humankind - a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule - in the hopes of learning more about how planets took shape.

This flyby is the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft.

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.

Ultima Thule lies 6.5bn km (4bn miles) from Earth, beyond the Solar System in an area termed the Kuiper Belt.

Scientist at the American space agency confirmed New Horizons was in a "healthy" condition after passing the icy space rock some hours ago.

"It's a better pixelated blob", said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

This image made available by NASA in March 2017 shows Pluto illuminated from behind by the sun as the New Horizons spacecraft travels away from it at a distance of about 200,000 kilometres.

Alice Bowman, New Horizons' mission operations manager at APL, said the spacecraft entered "encounter mode" on Wednesday.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 32 km long, though there's a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck. Images of the object taken just before the encounter will grow to a few more pixels, transmitted back to Earth at the speed of light in about six hours.

Guests cheer as the New Horizons team members receive signals from the spacecraft that it is healthy
BILL INGALLS APGuests cheer as the New Horizons team members receive signals from the spacecraft that it is healthy

New Horizons is on track to reach its closest point to Ultima Thule - 2,200 miles - in a flyby at a speed of about 31,500 mph at 12:33 a.m. EST on New Year's Day.

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. All in all, New Horizons will collect 50 gigabits of data, as compared to the 55 gigabits collected at Pluto.

Although the image provided a new look at Ultima Thule, it lacks detail.

The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises.

To the ancient Roman and Greeks, Ultima Thule was originally the most northerly part of the Earth, but the name was used to refer to anywhere which was outside the known world. "What we'll very soon learn about this primordial building block of our solar system will exponentially expand our knowledge of this relatively unknown third region of space".

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on a 4 billion mile journey toward the solar system's frigid edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.

Scientists are hopeful New Horizons will capture the real thing.

Based on images taken during the spacecraft's approach, the Kuiper Belt is approximately 20 by 10 miles shaped similar to a bowling pin andspinning end over end. "From here out, the data will just get better and better".

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