NASA spacecraft successfully phones home after record-setting 6.4 billion km journey

Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute

Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Southwest Research Institute

This incredible feat was possible because thousands of operations on the spacecraft worked in sync.

Familiar to many as the spacecraft that taught us so much about the dwarf planet Pluto and its "heart" on its surface, New Horizons has now taken photos of another distant object, Ultima Thule.

The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered, blew party horns and jubilantly waved small USA flags again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons' closest approach to Ultima Thule.

This is the best look scientists have ever had at Ultima. Scientists aren't yet sure if Ultima is a single body, a binary pair, or a system of many objects. "This is exploration at its finest", said Adam L. Hamilton, president and CEO of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. At closest approach, New Horizons was 2,200 miles away from - what appears to be - the bowling pin-shaped object.

An artist's illustration shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto. Its size is estimated at 35 kilometers long by 15 kilometers wide.

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

Data and images from the flyby are expected to begin coming in from New Horizons on Wednesday, Stern said.

He may be better known as Queen's lead guitarist, but Dr Brian May also holds a doctorate in astrophysics - and today revealed a song he wrote after being asked by NASA to support its latest historic mission. He's particularly interested in stereo imaging for this leg of the mission. Further details will be forthcoming in the days ahead, as New Horizons sends back color close-ups.

"This mission represents to me the spirit of adventure, discovery and inquiry which is inherent in the human spirit", May said during the countdown to the flyby.

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This sequence of three images, received on 31 December 2018 and taken by the LORRI camera on board New Horizons at 70 and 85 minutes apart, illustrates the rotation of Ultima Thule. Because of the government shutdown, which includes NASA, the agency's acting director of planetary science, Lori Glaze was attending as a private citizen and could not speak in her official role.

"From everything we know, it was formed 4.5 or 4.6 billion years ago, 4 billion miles from the Sun", said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in the US.

"We have just completed the most distant flyby". "This is what leadership in space exploration is all about".

'I was inspired by the idea that this is the furthest that the Hand of Man has ever reached - it will be by far the most distant object we have ever seen at close quarters, through the images which the space craft will beam back to Earth.

Engineers had to wait in nervous anticipation for hours as the signals travelled back to Earth following the flyby at 12:33 a.m.

New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back data in a process expected to last nearly two years.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto. After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects, but the mission scientists said this is the highlight. But the spacecraft will scan two dozen other Kuiper belt objects with its modest telescope, in the hopes of extrapolating its findings from MU69 to the broader belt.

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