NASA spacecraft hurtles toward tiny, icy world beyond Pluto

Cristina Cross
January 2, 2019

In fact, retrieving information from New Horizons is so delayed that even NASA doesn't know with certainty that the spacecraft pulled off its mission without a hitch.

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.

Ultima Thule is a Kuiper Belt object that sits one billion miles past Pluto.

Fans can watch Ultima Thule flyby events live on NASATV and John Hopkins APL.

Scientists at New Horizons' headquarters are abuzz: Successful mission updates, which show the craft is safe and operating well, have been met with roaring cheers and standing ovations.

Prior to closest approach, project officials were optimistic that the spacecraft would perform the flyby as planned.

May joined Jubilant NASA scientists celebrating this morning after confirmation their New Horizons probe has reached the solar system's outermost region, 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 exploration at Ultima Thule is a fitting way to honor the brash exploration and boldness that was Apollo", Stern wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

Operating on autopilot, New Horizons was out of radio contact with controllers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory from late Monday afternoon until late Tuesday morning.

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Scientists know only that Ultima Thule is elongated like a baked potato.

This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. The 10-hour lag had been a tense wait for some of the team, fretful that their weeks-long search for hazards around MU69 (or "Ultima Thule", its nickname), such as fugitive moons or rings, had missed something before the spacecraft sped past at a distance of some 3,500 kilometers.

Dr. Stern added that while this week's images should be a dramatic improvement over what is now known about the Kuiper Belt, scientists will not have their best views downloaded until February.

The observations should help scientists ascertain how deep-freeze objects like Ultima Thule formed, along with the rest of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's encounter to be riskier and more hard than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater. "No one has ever seen a Kuiper Belt object as anything but a point of light".

New Horizons first launched in 2006 with the goal of doing a flyby study of the Pluto system by 2015. It was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope and added to New Horizons' itinerary. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

We'll soon find out.

In addition to the webcast, Alan Stern and the rest of the New Horizons mission team continues to answer questions from the public in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) forum. Nine years and 3.5 billion miles later, it took the first-ever close up photos of Pluto, revealing a complex and colorful world mottled with methane mountains and a vast, heart-shaped nitrogen ice plain.

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