Published: Wed, January 02, 2019
Science | By Patricia Jimenez

The most distant space encounter in history is happening now

The most distant space encounter in history is happening now

The New Horizons flyby of 2014 MU69, aptly nicknamed Ultima Thule for a Latin phrase meaning beyond the known world, will not only be the most distant planetary encounter in human history, but the object will also be the most primitive world ever visited by spacecraft. At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft, scientists will count down to the moment of New Horizons' closest approach, at 12:33 a.m.

"Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away".

Although the image provided a new look at Ultima Thule, it lacks detail.

These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years. As such, it is "probably the best time capsule we've ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it", Stern said.

But the encounter itself is risky, and if the spacecraft were to collide with a speck of space debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly, mission managers warned. You can also follow along on NASA TV. And New Horizons is a 13-year-old spacecraft; its power generator produces less wattage than it used to, which means operators must carefully prioritize their use of remaining fuel.

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Scientists say there are two possibilities: 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.

New Horizons successfully "phoned home" at 10:28 a.m. EST, letting NASA scientists know it survived the flyby of Ultima Thule.

A blurred and pixelated image released Monday, taken from 1.2 million miles away, has intrigued scientists because it appears to show an elongated blob, not a round space rock. Clear images so far are only artists' renderings. "Anything's possible out there in this very unknown region", said John Spencer, a deputy project scientist from Southwest Research Institute.

Stern said the goal is to take images of Ultima that are three times the resolution the team had for Pluto.

Ultima Thule was named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa.

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Icy wilderness: The object lies in the Kuiper Belt, a huge area of mysterious chunks of ice and small planet-like objects that lies way beyond Neptune, and a billion miles further on than Pluto.

"We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed - we think". "This flyby marks a first for all of us - APL, NASA, the nation and the world - and it is a great credit to the bold team of scientists and engineers who brought us to this point". New Horizons sped past Ultima at a speed of 32,000 mph, coming as close as 2,200 miles.

"As you celebrate New Year's Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the fantastic things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it", Stern wrote in the New York Times on Monday.

Both probes are still operational.

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