NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Is Triumphant in Encounter With the Most Distant Object Ever Visited

LAUREL, Md. — Thirty-three minutes after midnight, scientists, engineers and well-wishers right here at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory celebrated the second that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its closest strategy to a small, icy world nicknamed Ultima Thule.

Almost 10 hours later, the New Horizons staff lastly acquired affirmation that the spacecraft had executed its deliberate observations flawlessly. In the days and months to come back, the mission’s scientists anticipate to obtain footage of Ultima Thule and scientific knowledge that might result in discoveries about the origins of the solar and the planets.

That is the newest triumph in a journey that began in 2006, when the spacecraft launched on a mission to discover Pluto. Thirteen years and greater than 4 billion miles later, New Horizons has supplied humanity’s first glimpse of a distant fragment that might be unchanged from the photo voltaic system’s earliest days.

Ultima Thule, the title that the mission staff chosen for the object from greater than 34,000 strategies from the public, means “beyond the borders of the known world.” (Thule is pronounced “TOO-lee.”)

“I don’t know about you, but I’m really liking this 2019 thing so far,” S. Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, said at the start of a news conference on Tuesday.

The scientists revealed new images of Ultima Thule, taken when the spacecraft was still a half million miles away.

“Even though it’s a pixelated blob still,” said Harold A. Weaver, Jr., the project scientist, “it’s a better pixelated blob.”

Ultima Thule looked like a fuzzy bowling pin or a peanut, roughly 22 miles tall and 9 miles wide. The images also solved a mystery: why Ultima Thule’s brightness appeared unchanging as the spacecraft approached.

Typically, a spinning, irregularly shaped object would rhythmically brighten and dim as it spins.

It turns out that the long-distance camera aboard New Horizons was looking down at one of the poles of Ultima Thule, and thus it was always the same side of the object reflecting sunlight. “It’s almost like a propeller blade,” Dr. Weaver said. “That explains everything.”

The few fuzzy images so far sent home have not yet cleared up how long it takes for the small world to complete a single revolution.

Another question that has not yet been answered is whether Ultima Thule could actually be two small bodies in tight orbit around each other. Dr. Stern and Dr. Weaver said it was more likely that Ultima was a single object.

“If I’m wrong, I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Dr. Stern said. “If it’s two separate objects, this would be an unprecedented situation, in terms of how close they’re orbiting one another. It’d be spectacular to see, and I’d love to see it, but I think the higher probability is that it’s a single body.”

Dr. May said he was initially reluctant when Dr. Stern asked. “I thought this is going to be hard, because I can’t think of anything that rhymes with Ultima Thule,” he said.

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