NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has made contact with Earth to confirm its successful flyby of the icy world, Ultima Thule.

Thirty-three minutes into the new year, scientists, engineers celebrated the moment that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to a small, icy world nicknamed Ultima Thule.

Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft made its closest approach within 2,200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule.

A series of “phone home” signals arrived after 10:30 am (15:30 GMT). Therefore, indicating that the spacecraft had made it, intact, through the risky, high-speed encounter.

“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.

The First Message

One of NASA’s big antennas, in Madrid, Spain, picked up the radio message from the robotic craft.

Communicating with a spacecraft that is so far away takes six hours and eight minutes each way. Or about 12 hours and 15 minutes round trip.

The encounter occurred some 6.5bn km (4bn miles) away. Thus, making it the most distant ever exploration of an object in our Solar System.

In the days and months to come, the mission’s scientists expect to receive pictures of Ultima Thule and scientific data that could lead to discoveries about the origins of the sun and the planets.

“The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation,” said lead planetary scientist for New Horizons, Alan Stern.

This first radio message contained only engineering information on the status of the spacecraft. However, it confirmed that New Horizons executed its autonomous flyby observations as instructed and that the probe’s onboard memory was full.

Waiting for the Better Picture

Scientists are still not sure whether Ultime Thule is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster.

A blurry image released Tuesday showed its oblong shape resembles something like a peanut. Its dimensions are about 22 miles long and nine miles wide (35 by 15 kilometers).

Stern said his bet is that the object is a single body, not two pieces orbiting each other. But scientists have to wait until more, clearer images arrive Wednesday to say for sure.

The highest resolution images are expected in February, Stern said.

The timing and orientation of the spacecraft had to be spot on if the probe was not to shoot pictures of empty space! As a result, there will continue to be some anxiety until the data can be examined.

“The highest resolution images taken at closest approach required perfect pointing, almost,” said Project Scientist Hal Weaver. “We think, based on everything we’ve seen so far, that was achieved.”

As additional images are sent back to Earth, the scientists will get a clearer picture of the object.

“By tomorrow and the next day, Ultima Thule is going to be a completely different world from what we’re seeing now,” Dr. Weaver said.

So, the scientists will begin to start counting craters, mapping the surface, looking for moons and rings around Ultima Thule and identifying materials on the surface.

What’s Next for the New Horizons Spacecraft?

First, scientists must work on the new data received from the spacecraft. Then, they will probably ask NASA to fund a further extension to the mission.

They hope the spacecraft can visit at least one more Kuiper belt object sometime in the next decade.

New Horizons should have just enough fuel reserves to be able to do this. Critically, it should also have sufficient electrical reserves to keep operating its instruments into the 2030s.

The spacecraft might even be able to record its exit from the Solar System, thanks to the longevity of its plutonium battery.

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Thumbnail Image: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zooming past Ultima Thule, an icy Kuiper Belt object about 4 billion miles away. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI


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