NASA shares latest on New Horizons’ mission

Gwen Vasquez
January 1, 2019

NASA's New Horizons science team today received confirmation that its spacecraft survived a New Year's encounter with an icy world 4 billion miles away known as Ultima Thule - and it's carrying a priceless load of data.

Another NASA spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, also set a new record on Monday by entering orbit around the asteroid Bennu, the smallest cosmic object - about 1,600 feet (500 meters) in diameter - ever circled by a spacecraft. Ultima Thule, a rock 30 kilometers (19 miles) in diameter, could be what numerous solar system's rocky planets looked like in their infancy.

NASA is scheduled to hold a press conference at 11:30 a.m. ET.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto.

Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, noted that the data already collected looks "fantastic".

Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft made its closest approach within 2,200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule. This flyby follows a three-week search through New Horizon imagery for debris or other objects near Ultima Thule that might damage the spacecraft during the encounter.

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"We have a healthy spacecraft", said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for the New Horizons spacecraft, as cheers erupted in the control rooms at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years. In fact, it takes more than six hours for radio signals carrying information from New Horizons to deliver the data to NASA's Deep Space Network. Scientists say it will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its observations of Ultima Thule, a full billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto. After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects, but the mission scientists said this is the highlight.

It is located in the Kuiper Belt, a huge asteroid belt that surrounds our solar system and contains the leftovers of the system's formation. It could be surrounded by a cloud of dust or gas that scatters its light, preventing New Horizons from seeing a discernible light curve. As New Horizons speeds through space at 9 miles per second, it will take less than a day to turn Ultima Thule back into a speck in the rear view mirror. 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.

NASA's live stream of the event was very informative, providing details about the mission and animations to show where the spacecraft was in relation to Ultima Thule.

The New Horizons probe was first launched in January 2006 to study the planet of Pluto and its five moons.

We'll soon find out. "You can't get any better than that". The processed image on the right confirms the object's elongated shape.

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