NASA’s New Horizons zoomed past Ultima Thule, and now we wait

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Scientists at NASA are celebrating after receiving messages from its New Horizons probe, 6.5 billion km away.

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. Altogether, it will take almost two years for all of New Horizons' data to reach Earth. The instruments on New Horizons will create geologic and compositional maps of Ultima Thule, as well as searching for any rings, debris, or even small satellites orbiting the object. Ultima Thule is about 44 AU from the Sun on average, or roughly 4 billion miles from Earth.

The new year has started with a record-setting space mission by NASA.

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What makes Ultima Thule interesting to scientists is that is part of a population of "cold classical" Kuiper Belt objects whose orbits, with low inclinations and eccentricities, suggest that they are pristine objects unaltered since the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Stern said the goal is to take images of Ultima that are three times the resolution the team had for Pluto.

Scientists, engineers, their families and others who gathered to mark the event at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, erupted in cheers as mission controllers announced that New Horizons had phoned home as scheduled. But we won't know for sure that the spacecraft survived until the first data from closest approach streams back tomorrow morning. The first post-flyby images will be unveiled on Wednesday, kicking New Horizons' long-running campaign of discovery back into high gear. New Horizons passed within a few thousand miles of the oblong space rock known as Ultima Thule just after the calendar page turned to 2019 on the East Coast, and it's a huge achievement for the space agency and astronomy community in general. "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. NASA says Ultima Thule is likely the most primitive planetary object ever explored.

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Scientists said the information gleaned from the remote celestial object, thought to be an unchanged relic from the solar system's distant past, could provide clues to how the planets formed.

"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft", she said, "and it will continue after we're long gone here on Earth".

New Horizons launched in January 2006 on a nine-year mission to Pluto, which it reached in July 2015, taking numerous pictures and scientific measurements as it flew by the dwarf planet. The hope is that the mission will be extended yet again and another target will be forthcoming sometime in the 2020s. It's name is an ancient cartographer's phrase meaning it is "beyond the known world".

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At a news conference later today, the science team will share results that New Horizons sent back before its closest approach to Ultima. "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".