New Horizons Arrives at Ultima Thule | Space Exploration

Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute

Given the great distance between New Horizons and Earth, it will take the data at least six hours to reach our planet and an extra few for NASA to process it.

The live broadcast can be followed at www.nasa.gov/nasalive.

NASA's New Horizons explorer successfully "phoned home" on Tuesday after a journey to the most distant world ever explored by humankind, a frozen rock at the edge of the solar system that scientists hope will uncover secrets to its creation.

These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years.

Ultima Thule - or 2014 MU69, as it is called in astronomical catalogs - is estimated at being somewhere around 30 km wide.

But the encounter itself was 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.

Scientists at John Hopkins Applied Science Laboratory whooped with joy and applauded as the first signals came back from the spacecraft, which left Earth more than a decade ago.

What does it look like?

Scientists say there are two possibilities for this: 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.

Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope.

A blurred and pixelated image released on Monday, taken from 1,920,000km away, has intrigued scientists because it appears to show an elongated blob, not a round space rock. Even clearer images should arrive over the next three days.

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At mission control in John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, the New Horizons team has been using the spacecraft's cameras to snap new pictures of Ultima Thule on approach.

Seven instruments on board will record high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition.

The flyby will be fast, at a speed of nine miles per second.

"I think it is fitting that this flyby of Ultima Thule is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 [the first USA satellite] in 2018 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019", Zurbuchen said in an email that Stern read aloud Monday, reports Space.com.

Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa.

After travelling 1 billion miles beyond Pluto into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will look for clues concerning the formation of the solar system and its planets.

"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver.

"Who knows what we might find?".

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

Part of the delay was due to the fact that New Horizons had to finish loading up the scientific data before it could turn its antenna to transmit back, and another big factor was the 6-hour-plus light travel time for the signals.

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