New Horizons probe closes in on remote body Ultima Thule

New Horizons probe closes in on remote body Ultima Thule

A billion miles past Pluto, at 12:33 a.m. EST tonight on New Year's Day, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will swoop in close to the most distant object humans will have ever visited.

NASA's New Horizons probe is ringing in the new year by swinging by Ultima Thule, a small object in the Kuiper asteroid belt.

Once it enters the peripheral layer of the belt, containing icy bodies and leftover fragments from the solar system's creation, the probe will get its first close-up glance of Ultima Thule, a cool mass shaped like a giant peanut, using seven on-board instruments.

A series of anxiously awaited "phone home" signals arrived after 10.30am (11.30pm Singapore time), indicating that the spacecraft had made it, intact, through the risky, high-speed encounter.

The Kuiper Belt is the edge of our solar system, part of the original disk from which the sun and planets formed.

New Horizons zipped past Ultima Thule more than three years after its brush with Pluto.

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

But there is a minivan-size spacecraft called New Horizons.

New Horizons acquired gigabytes of photos and other observations during the pass, however, because of the vast distance between the spacecraft and Earth, it will take until September 2020 to retrieve all of the data stored on the probe.

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"We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", announced Alice Bowman, mission operations manager. It's also could be two objects closely orbiting each other, but only more data will show for sure.

The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (1445 GMT). Scientists said it will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its observations of Ultima Thule, a full billion miles (1.6 billion kilometres) beyond Pluto. "Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away", he said.

If New Horizons sounds familiar, it's because this is the spacecraft that conducted a historic flyby of Pluto in 2015, sending back unprecedented images of the dwarf planet and revealing new details about Pluto and its moons.

Ultima Thule is the first destination to be reached that was not even known until after the spacecraft's launch. "To have the chance to lead this from the inception through design and build and flight across the solar system, and now to our capstone in the Kuiper Belt, is the product of a lifetime, and it's something that dreams are made of".

The New Horizons is approximately 4 billion miles from the sun.

"This is another great step in the exploration of our solar system".

New Horizons sped past Ultima at a speed of 32,000 mph, coming as close as 2,200 miles. "We'll find out Tuesday".

In images taken Sunday night, Ultima Thule appeared as little more than an elongated white smear against the darkness of space. "From here out, the data will just get better and better".

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