New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW — NASA announcement

New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW — NASA announcement

NASA rang in the New Year with jubilation after receiving confirmation that the New Horizons spacecraft completed a successful flyby Tuesday of the most distant object ever explored in space.

NASA's New Horizons probe has flown past Ultima Thule - a ball of dust and ice that's 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth.

But despite the festive atmosphere - which included the release of a New Horizons song recorded by contributing scientist and rock guitarist Brian May of Queen, who was on hand for the event - the mission team had no way of knowing if their spacecraft was still in one piece and executing its reconnaissance of Ultima Thule.

NASA's New Horizons probe is ringing in the new year by swinging by of Ultima Thule, a small object in the Kuiper asteroid belt. But as of Tuesday morning, New Horizons scientists were betting on a single object. These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years.

At the moment, Ultima Thule is little more than a pixel of light on New Horizon's imaging instruments. So they had to wait until late morning before learning whether the spacecraft survived.

Cheers erupted at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to mission control. Instead, hundreds of team members and their guests gathered nearby on campus for back-to-back countdowns.

This image made available by NASA in March 2017 shows Pluto illuminated from behind by the sun as the New Horizons spacecraft travels away from it at a distance of about 200,000 kilometres.

Ultima is in what's termed the Kuiper belt, which is a band of frozen material that orbits the Sun far beyond even the dwarf planet Pluto.

When New Horizons launched in 2006, it had Pluto in its sights. Eastern. That initial transmission contained no science data but rather telemetry about the health of the spacecraft and its performance during the flyby, including how much data it collected. Then the spacecraft was to turn briefly toward Earth to transmit word of success. It takes over six hours for radio signals to reach Earth from that far away.

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Ultima Thule - or 2014 MU69, as it is called in astronomical catalogs - is estimated at being somewhere around 30 km wide. Traveling at 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle.

"Because this is a flyby, we only get one chance to get it right", Bowman said.

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we'll know how we did", Stern told reporters on Monday. While astronomers on Earth would strain to find another target, it's likely that New Horizons itself could track one down.

The risk added to the excitement. As the countdown to the flyby reached its climax, the crowd went as insane as any New Year crowd would as the fireworks lit up the night sky.

Come back for more updates during tonight's New Years flyby, and in the days following, as the New Horizons shares more of what they discover from this distant encounter!

This is truly unlike any object we've explored, elsewhere in our solar system!

Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA. It is thought to be the shape of a potato and dark in color with a touch of red, the result of being zapped by cosmic rays for eons. What we know about the object now is that it's about 35 by 15 kilometers.

Every 20 minutes, the spacecraft´s cameras and infrared imagers are capturing shots of the space rock, "so as it rotates and we get closer we will get good data on all parts of it as we approach", said John Spencer, a scientist with the Southwest Research Institute. "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".

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