NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

Flight controllers in Maryland declared success 10 hours after the high-risk, middle-of-the-night encounter at the mysterious body known as Ultima Thule on the frozen fringes of our solar system, an astounding 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometres) beyond Pluto.

Data and images from the flyby are expected to begin coming in from New Horizons on Wednesday, Stern said.

New Horizons has been a groundbreaking mission for NASA since its launch in 2006.

Ultima Thule is the first destination to be reached that was not even known until after the spacecraft's launch.

"Congratulations to NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

Scientists did not want to interrupt observations as New Horizons swept past Ultima Thule - described as a bullet intersecting with another bullet - so they delayed radio transmissions.

"We have a healthy spacecraft", said mission operations manager Alice Bowman, as cheers erupted in the control rooms at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

Applause and cheers broke out at mission control when the signals from New Horizons were confirmed on Tuesday. Scientists and other team members embraced, while hundreds of others gave a standing ovation. The pixelated image does not exclude the possibility that Ultima Thule is really two objects in close proximity or in contact.

A huge spill-over crowd in a nearby auditorium joined in the loud celebration, cheering each green, or good, status update.

"Everything we are going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things - are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system".

On Tuesday, scientists released an image that was taken before the closest point of the approach that revealed Ultima Thule is likely to be a bowling pin-shaped object about 35 kilometres long by 15 kilometres at its widest. It's also spinning, although scientists don't yet know how fast. As such, it is the most primitive body ever visited by a spacecraft. Ultima Thule is considered a member of the "Cold Classical" Kuiper Belt Object, because it appears to be the gravitationally unperturbed and original material of the Kuiper Belt.

But the best colour close-ups will not be available until later in January and February. Those images should reveal whether Ultima Thule has any rings or moons, or craters on its dark, reddish surface.

Comparing that travel time with the eight minutes it takes light from the Sun to reach Earth or the slightly over one second that it takes light from the Moon to reach Earth shows how far away the encounter with Ultima Thule was.

Since then, over a decade's worth of scientific advancements has helped us to learn more about the Kuiper Belt and the odd worlds that might inhabit it, but there's no denying that this first up-close brush with an actual Kuiper Belt Object is an unprecedented accomplishment. An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left.

Whatever the return is from its MU69 flyby, Stern hopes that its mission isn't done.

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.

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