Friday, 18 January, 2019

New Horizons: Nasa probe survives flyby of Ultima Thule

NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW Ring in the New Year With NASA's New Horizons | Science
Melody Ballard | 02 January, 2019, 16:41

While the encounter might have taken place just after midnight on NYE, it wasn't until about six hours later that scientists at NASA, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute actually received the first images of the flyby, thanks to the incredible distance the data had to be transmitted across space. This incredible feat was possible because thousands of operations on the spacecraft worked in sync.

Scientists said 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 kilometres) beyond Pluto. He was also inspired to release a new song celebrating New Horizons on New Year's Day.

"We're already learning about Ultima from up close", Stern said.

Now, over three years later, the spacecraft is making another historic flyby, this time of an object only discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope roughly a year before New Horizons sped past Pluto.

NASA's New Horizons explorer successfully "phoned home" on Tuesday after a journey to the most distant world ever explored by humankind, a frozen rock at the edge of the solar system that scientists hope will uncover secrets to its creation. Given that scientists have never before studied a Kuiper Belt object like this up close, Ultima Thule may yield many new insights into the history of the formation of our solar system.

"Go New Horizons!" said lead scientist Alan Stern as a crowd cheered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to mark the moment at 12:33am (1.33pm Hong Kong time) when the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock four.

An artist's conception of what Ultima Thule might look like. By this evening, the team should have a 100-pixel image in hand; higher resolutions will follow in the next couple days, with the best shots not arriving till February.

Because of the extreme distance and slow transmission rate, scientists do not expect to have a good view of Ultima Thule to share until Wednesday after they have worked with the raw data.

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It is the furthest exploration of any object in the Solar System.

The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (1445 GMT).

New Horizons' 2015 encounter with Pluto was the most distant exploration until Tuesday. Now, the Kuiper Belt is thought to include millions of icy objects, unused planetary building blocks left over from the earliest days of the solar system.

"The Voyagers and Pioneers flew through the Kuiper Belt at a time when we didn't know this region existed", Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement.

Scattered amongst the crowd are those who will carry on New Horizons' legacy - I've spotted team members from Nasa's Osiris-ReX spacecraft which entered orbit around the asteroid Bennu yesterday, and the leaders of upcoming missions to a odd metal asteroid called Psyche and to the trojan asteroids that share an orbit with Jupiter. "Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt".

Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA. New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006.

This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft.

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