Why New Horizons flyby is a space exploration milestone

NASA spaceship zooms toward farthest world ever

An unmanned NASA spacecraft sent a signal back to Earth Tuesday that it successfully made it through a risky flyby past the most distant planetary object ever studied, the U.S. space agency said.

New Horizons' mission was to collect data, including thousands of photographs, of Ultima Thule, a frozen world on the Kuiper belt about one billion miles beyond the farthest known major planet, Neptune. Scientists say there are two possibilities: Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another.

Scientists know only that Ultima Thule is elongated like a baked potato.

Ultima Thule, measured at approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide, means "beyond the known world".

A composite of two images taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule's size and shape so far.

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

May was at Mission Control for the event, and today released the track New Horizons, his first solo single since 1998, on YouTube.

The night before, after ringing in the new year, team members had counted down and celebrated the moment they expected New Horizons would make its closest approach to its target based on their knowledge of its trajectory.

The small body is known as a "cold classical" Kuiper Belt object, or KBO, meaning it is a pristine sample of that original material, circling the sun in a circular, flat orbit that indicates it has not been jostled or otherwise disturbed since the solar system's birth.

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.

'He asked if I could come up with a theme for Ultima Thule which could be played as the NH probe reached this new destination'.

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The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the "third zone" in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12.33am Eastern (1.33pm Malaysian time).

Ultima Thule is more than four billion miles from Earth.

"Anything's possible out there in this very unknown region", John Spencer, deputy project scientist for New Horizons, told reporters yesterday at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

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

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following Tuesday's official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won't be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in color, it is hoped.

"Think about it - we're a billion miles further than Pluto."

New Horizons will continue to zoom farther away.

The twin planetary feats coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when United States astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 in December 1968.

"The data we have look fantastic, and we're already learning about Ultima from up close", Stern said.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years. "There are no second chances for New Horizons".

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