NASA's New Horizons explorer has successfully "phoned home" after a journey to the most distant world ever explored by humankind, a frozen rock at the edge of the solar system that scientists hope will uncover secrets to its creation.
New Horizons first launched on January 19, 2006, and made a historic flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015. At the time, Ultima Thule was at a distance of nearly 6.5 billion kilometres from the Sun, making this the most distant planetary flyby attempted, and the first time that a Solar System object of this type has been seen close-up, NASA said in a statement.
That new data should help clear up some outstanding questions scientists still have about this distant object - including whether that bowling pin shape actually masks two closely co-orbiting objects (not one integrated mass), and how long it takes the spinning object to complete a rotation.
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.
Ultima Thule essentially means "beyond Thule", which suggests something that lies beyond what is known.
The last image taken of Ultima Thule before New Horizons flew by the rocky body.
The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 1/2 years after New Horizons' unprecedented swing past Pluto.
Scientists rejoiced at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) today at 10:29 a.m. EST, saying the moment ushered in the new era of "exploration from the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system". Scientists will not have confirmation of its successful arrival until the probe communicates its whereabouts through NASA's Deep Space Network at 10.28am Eastern, about 10 hours later.
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"The Kuiper Belt is just a scientific wonderland", Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, said on Sunday.
"Reaching Ultima Thule from 4 billion miles away is an incredible achievement".
It is the farthest away from the Sun any spacecraft has ever investigated an object, with New Horizons taking over 13 years to reach the rock.
"We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", mission operations manager Alice Bowman said. Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014.
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. The pixelated image does not exclude the possibility that Ultima Thule is really two objects in close proximity or in contact.
This flyby is the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft.
Ultima Thule orbits a billion miles beyond Pluto and has been locked in a state of deep-freeze preservation since the universe began some 4.5 billion years ago.
Bowman takes comfort and pleasure in knowing that long after New Horizons stops working, it "will keep going on and on".
"We're already learning about Ultima from up close", Stern said. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto.
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