Watch Tonight's New Horizon's Flyby of Ultima Thule Right Here

Mindy Sparks
January 2, 2019

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

Scientists say it will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its observations of Ultima Thule, a full billion miles beyond Pluto.

By then, New Horizons will be on its way out of the solar system to roam the Milky Way galaxy for eternity, a fact that mission operations manager Alice Bowman said has stayed with her through the tension and excitement of the once-in-a-lifetime flyby.

Scientists say Ultima Thule represents a class of objects known as "cold classicals" in the Kuiper Belt, a broad stretch of icy material beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Comparing that travel time with the eight minutes it takes light from the Sun to reach Earth or the slightly over one second that it takes light from the Moon to reach Earth shows how far away the encounter with Ultima Thule was.

Delighted mission controllers confirmed that the robotic explorer survived its encounter with Ultima Thule early Tuesday morning and had started transmitting the images and data it gathered during the historic flyby. For more updates, follow NASA New Horizons' Twitter account here.


Space exploration history has been made by Nasa's New Horizons probe, which has been recording imagery from the furthest a spacecraft has ever been sent. "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. He said the Ultima Thule flyby was "much more challenging" than the one the spacecraft performed of Pluto in July 2015. That data includes high-resolution images of Ultima Thule and spectra that can provide information about its composition.

Though the closest point of the flyby, only 2,200 miles above Ultima Thule's surface, occurred just after midnight, the spacecraft was pointed at the object for a few more hours with its antenna, rigidly locked to the spacecraft body, pointing away from Earth.

New Horizons was on course to fly past the mysterious, primitive object nicknamed Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday. "We're very confident in the spacecraft and very confident in the plan that we have for the exploration of Ultima", said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, at a December 31 press conference.

The spacecraft will ping back more detailed images and data from Thule in the coming days, NASA said.

Its mission now totalling $800 million, the baby grand piano-sized New Horizons will keep hurtling toward the edge of the solar system, observing Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs, from afar, and taking cosmic particle measurements. While astronomers on Earth would strain to find another target, it's likely that New Horizons itself could track one down. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto. But the spacecraft will scan two dozen other Kuiper belt objects with its modest telescope, in the hopes of extrapolating its findings from MU69 to the broader belt.

Dr Brian May is officially part of the New Horizons team, and drew quite a crowd to his briefing. "What we'll very soon learn about this primordial building block of our solar system will exponentially expand our knowledge of this relatively unknown third region of space".

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

Discuss This Article

FOLLOW OUR NEWSPAPER