Friday, 18 January, 2019

NASA ushers in 2019 with epic flyby of faraway world

Our best view of Ultima Thule so far. The image on the right has been magnified and had the background stars subtracted from the image. (NASA  Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW
Theresa Hayes | 01 January, 2019, 23:11

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. That flyby revealed that even little Pluto, more than three billion miles from the sun, is an active world with shifting plains, glaciers and mountains that reach up to about 15,000 feet. Ultima Thule, a rock 30 kilometers (19 miles) in diameter, could be what numerous solar system's rocky planets looked like in their infancy.

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

Scientist at the American space agency confirmed New Horizons was in a "healthy" condition after passing the icy space rock some hours ago.

"Now it is just a matter of time to see the data coming down", said deputy project scientist John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute.

As the probe flies 2,200 miles (3,500 km) above Thule's surface, scientists hope it will detect the chemical composition of its atmosphere and terrain in what NASA says will be the closest observation of a body so remote. For more updates, follow NASA New Horizons' Twitter account here.

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's encounter to be riskier and more hard than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.

"We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", announced Alice Bowman, mission operations manager. A version of the image with superimposed lines shows where stars blinked out as they passed behind Ultima Thule, and two red circles indicate how Ultima Thule would be oriented if it is really a pair of objects.

The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (1445 GMT).

The New Horizons probe successfully captured images of Ultima Thule, a small, frigid world about 19 miles long that lies about 4 billion miles from Earth.

So when NASA chose a target for its New Horizons spacecraft that was farther than anything explored before, "Ultima Thule" seemed a fitting moniker.

In July of 2015, after travelling for over nine years in space, the New Horizons probe made history, by giving us our very first close-up look at Pluto and its moons.

The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises.

"We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed -we think".

We'll soon find out.

It is - and the first decent images of Ultima Thule are likely already on their way back to Earth from the spacecraft. The processed image on the right confirms the object's elongated shape.

'An even more freakish scenario is one in which Ultima is surrounded by many tiny tumbling moons, ' said University of Virginia's Anne Verbiscer, a New Horizons assistant project scientist. "You can't get any better than that".