Spacecraft opens new year with flyby on solar system’s edge

Theresa Obrien
January 5, 2019

The team behind the Boulder-born New Horizons mission on Wednesday released the clearest image to date from its New Year's Eve flyby of Ultima Thule, the Kuiper Belt Object on which the spacecraft set its sights after a historic brush with Pluto more than three years and a billion miles ago.

In the early hours of January 1, the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Ultima Thule.

Despite that primitive appearance - if not because of it - they said the object nicknamed Ultima Thule could offer profound new insight into how the planets formed more than 4½ billion years ago.

In the coming days, weeks and months, NASA scientists will continue to receive new data from New Horizons, revealing Ultima Thule in greater detail.

That's where Ultima Thule comes in: It looks to be a partial conglomeration of uncooked space dough-a premature mashup that could have served as the basis for a planet, but didn't.

Scientists weren't able to confirm the flyby until several hours later.

Operating on autopilot, New Horizons was out of radio contact with controllers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory from late Monday afternoon until late Tuesday morning.

A blurry image of an object formed by two spheres
New Horizons unveils a new world. Actually, it's 2 worlds smashed together.

"New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system", Moore said.

It zoomed past Pluto - collecting numerous photos and reams of information about the now dwarf planet - in July 2015, and reached Ultima Thule early on New Year's Day. Before Ultima Thule was intercepted by the New Horizons spacecraft, scientists knew nearly nothing about it, but they were eager for a glimpse of what's thought to be an nearly unchanged relic from our solar system's earliest days. This image from video made available by NASA shows a diagram describing the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule. Initially, the New Horizon's team believed that the object was a spherical chunk of ice and rock measuring 18-41 km (10-30 mi) in diameter.

Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched, according to NASA, making the mission unique in that respect. New Horizons is so far away it can only send data at about 2,000 bits per second, so it took time to get the new, higher-quality images.

"This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really unbelievable", Stern said.

There is some dispute among scientists, though, about whether Ultima Thule is the first contact binary seen. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time", said Jeff Moore, the mission's geology manager.

He added: 'It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science'. "We have far less than 1 percent of the data ... already down on the ground", Stern said.

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune.

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