Nasa probe extends horizons of mankind with fly-by of Ultima Thule

The spacecraft is funded through 2021; during much of that time, it will be beaming back data from its flyby. This pristine, primordial history should allow scientists to tease out important clues about the history of the Kuiper Belt, the distant and unknown menagerie of objects beyond Neptune, along with insights to the formation and migration of the planets.

Engineers celebrated after receiving confirmation that the probe had successfully performed its manoeuvres and sped past Ultima Thule, yet one key mystery about the space rock remained unanswered for several hours yesterday.

At 10:29 a.m., flight controllers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., received word from the spacecraft.

A half hour later, the New Horizons team poured into an APL auditorium to a five-minute standing ovation and a parade of high fives from APL staff.

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.

The feat has been compared to photographing a flower by the side of the road from the window of a speeding vehicle at night.

New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in July 2015. Due to the tremendous distances involved (about 4 billion miles!), all transmissions from New Horizons will take just over 6 hours to arrive on Earth, even traveling at the speed of light.

Applause and cheers broke out at mission control when the signals from New Horizons were confirmed on Tuesday.

As revellers watched fireworks exploding in the night sky, billions of kilometres beyond the spectacle, NASA's New Horizons probe quietly notched up another awesome first - making its closest approach to the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

The New Horizons probe reached the closest point of its flyby at 05:33 British time on New Year's Day, passing Thule at more than 30,000 miles per hour and coming within 2,200 miles of the surface of the 19 mile-wide object.

The new year on Earth began with a record-setting space mission 4 billion miles away - a first look at an object on the edge of our solar system. NASA later extended the mission to include additional Kuiper Belt studies. Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014.

By week's end, "Ultima Thule is going to be a completely different world, compared to what we're seeing now", Weaver noted.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) long, though there's a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck.

An image of Thule, sent overnight and barely more detailed than previous images, deepens the mystery of whether Thule is a single rock shaped like an asymmetrical peanut or actually two rocks orbiting each other, "blurred together due to their proximity", Stern said.

Stephen Gwyn, an astronomer and data specialist with Canada's National Research Council who is participating in the mission, said the image has already solved one mystery: how the oblong-shaped Ultima Thule can rotate without changing its brightness. "The Ultima Thule flyby has all of these!"

"The data that we've got so far shows that we were right".

  • Joe Gonzales