Published: Tue, January 01, 2019
Sci-tech | By April Francis

NASA spacecraft hurtles toward tiny, icy world beyond Pluto

NASA spacecraft hurtles toward tiny, icy world beyond Pluto

Based on these two factors, this object could be a pristine piece of the early solar system, which formed at its current location, and thus was not tossed around by the gravity of the other planets (looking at YOU, Neptune), and has possibly gone completely (or almost completely) untouched for over 4.5 billion years.

The flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.

Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Because the object is hurling through space at 31,500 miles per hour the encounter with New Horizons was described as "a bullet intersecting with another bullet", the Associated Press reported.

The New Horizons spacecraft is expected to be downloading images and other data for months.

Real-time video of the actual flyby is impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive.

"We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", announced Alice Bowman, mission operations manager.

Scientists are not sure exactly what Ultima Thule looks like - whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster. Owing to the probe's great distance from Earth and the relative weakness of its signal, it took several hours for scientists to receive and process the image. "Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away", said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern in a statement cited by Space.com.

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on a 4 billion mile journey toward the solar system's frigid edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons. Ultima Thule's birthplace is important to scientists, because it's a historic part of the solar system and its temperature is barely above absolute zero, which is why it has a chilly appearance. Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote. The far-flung space rock is an inhabitant of the Kuiper Belt, the ring of debris that encircles the icy outer reaches of solar system.

The encounter with Ultima Thule will be brief and technically demanding, even more so than New Horizons' Pluto flyby.

Wherever we've explored in the Solar System, we've found the unexpected.

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times. By the time the first images and data stream back to Earth, the borders of the known world will have expand once more. "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". "From here out, the data will just get better and better".

But a new, though still blurry image released Tuesday showed its oblong shape resembles something like a bowling pin or a peanut, and its dimensions are about 22 miles long and nine miles wide (35 by 15 kilometres).

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