New Horizons launches on NYE to explore Ultima Thule

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Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote.

So when NASA chose a target for its New Horizons spacecraft that was farther than anything explored before, "Ultima Thule" seemed a fitting moniker. Based on observations taken since its discovery, watching as the object passed in front of (or "occulted") known background stars, astronomers believe that it is very likely what's known as a "contact binary".

At 11:30 a.m., scientists involved with the New Horizons mission released the first images and data returned by the spacecraft. The program is a collaborative effort between NASA, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where scientists navigate and control the spacecraft. "There are a lot ideas and every one of them might be wrong". "We'll find out Tuesday".

The encounter with Ultima is among the more hard feats NASA has attempted.

And even the United States government shutdown couldn't stop NASA from celebrating such an extraordinary feat.

Strangely, however, according to the mission team, the spacecraft's cameras have not been able to pick up any light curve from Ultima Thule.

The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons' closest approach to Ultima Thule. "By tomorrow, we'll know how we did".

When New Horizons launched in 2006, it had Pluto in its sights. Tuesday's encounter took place 1.6 billion kilometers past Pluto, some 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth.

It may be that Ultima Thule is similar to comets that follow elliptical paths taking them close to the sun, only Ultima was never perturbed and flung inward by a gravitational encounter with Neptune or Uranus.

Until the 1990s, no one knew what hid out here, where sunlight is 0.05 as faint as it is on Earth.

"The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation", he said.

Scientists chose to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet. The object is 20 miles long by 10 miles wide.

Fans can watch Ultima Thule flyby events live on NASATV and John Hopkins APL. All in all, New Horizons will collect 50 gigabits of data, as compared to the 55 gigabits collected at Pluto. In this case, the probe will literally sweep past Ultima Thule at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour (51,000 kilometers per hour or about 14.6 kilometers per second). Signal acquisition should happen around 9:45 a.m. EST New Year's Day.

But New Horizons' performance so far suggests it is ready for the challenge, Stern said.

Real-time video of the actual flyby is impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship, named New Horizons, and another six hours for the response to arrive.

"The data we have look fantastic, and we're already learning about Ultima from up close", Stern said.

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