Ultima Thule Becomes Furthest Object Ever Explored by Mankind

Ultima Thule Becomes Furthest Object Ever Explored by Mankind

Cheers erupted in the control centre and in a nearby auditorium, where hundreds more - still tired from the double countdowns on New Year's Eve - gathered to await word.

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.

New Horizons' mission was to collect data, including thousands of photographs, of Ultima Thule, a frozen world on the Kuiper belt about one billion miles beyond the farthest known major planet, Neptune.

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

It was a spectacular way to bring in the new year, as NASA scientists confirmed that the New Horizons spacecraft had successfully reached the farthest object ever explored, a small icy world called Ultima Thule.

Flight controllers say everything looked good for New Horizons' flyby of the tiny, icy object at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday, 3 ½ years after its encounter with Pluto. Scientists picked Ultima Thule with help from the Hubble Space Telescope.

While Ultima Thule is the farthest object NASA has investigated, the agency's New Horizon's probe is not the farthest human-made object from Earth. It's been a busy new year period for NASA: its Osiris Rex spacecraft just entered orbit around the asteroid Bennu on Monday, too.

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. Instead, hundreds of team members and their guests gathered nearby on campus for back-to-back countdowns.

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Queen guitarist Brian May, who also happens to be an astrophysicist, joined the team at Johns Hopkins with plans to present around midnight the cosmic premiere of a music composition he wrote in honor of the big event.

"New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history - 4 billion miles from the Sun", Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. The 10-hour lag had been a tense wait for some of the team, fretful that their weeks-long search for hazards around MU69 (or "Ultima Thule", its nickname), such as fugitive moons or rings, had missed something before the spacecraft sped past at a distance of some 3,500 kilometers.

The twin planetary feats coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when USA astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 in December 1968.

New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006. Before exploring the edge of the solar system, the spacecraft was the first to capture Pluto.

"Celebrating the whole 12-year Journey of New Horizons probe", the text about the song and music video on YouTube said. It will take nearly two years before all of the data can be downloaded.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth.

Scientists say there are two possibilities for this: Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another.

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