New Horizons probe sends first signal from Ultima Thule

NASA spaceship zooms toward farthest world ever

NASA spaceship zooms toward farthest world ever

An anxious crowd in a nearby auditorium watching events joined in the loud celebration.

The team of scientists cheered when the first signals were received from the New Horizons craft.

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule," indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft. "We hardly know anything about it", says Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, at APL.

Ultima Thule is more than four million miles from Earth, making it the farthest ever object ever explored by humanity.

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

Mission scientists were relieved about the success because there was only one chance to get it right as New Horizons screamed past Ultima at 31,500 miles per hour.

Tired from dual countdowns late Monday and early Tuesday, the New Horizons team members were visibly anxious as they reassembled in late morning.

New Horizons' 2015 encounter with Pluto was the most distant exploration until Tuesday. This "light curve" is the changes in brightness over time that New Horizons should pick up from Ultima Thule, as it rotates in space and the different features on its surface reflect back different amounts of light from the Sun (even at its far distance).

But the encounter itself is risky, and if the spacecraft were to collide with a speck of space debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly, mission managers warned. A version of the image with superimposed lines shows where stars blinked out as they passed behind Ultima Thule, and two red circles indicate how Ultima Thule would be oriented if it is really a pair of objects.

Our Solar System is a big place, and Ultima Thule is very far away. The small body continues to orbit undisturbed on a more circular path than comets, never getting closer than 42 Astronomical Units, or 42 times the average distance between the Earth and the sun.

Tomorrow, Jan 2, at 8:55 pm EST, a better, 200-pixel image of the asteroid may be available, depending on how the rock is positioned.

Not long after the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day, as 2018 gave way to 2019, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by the far-out space rock Ultima Thule.

Project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said humans did not even know the Kuiper Belt - a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system - existed until the 1990s. The close encounter marks the farthest spacecraft flyby in history. The hope is that the mission will be extended yet again and another target will be forthcoming sometime in the 2020s. Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote. And New Horizons is a 13-year-old spacecraft; its power generator produces less wattage than it used to, which means operators must carefully prioritize their use of remaining fuel.

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