Queen's Brian May joins other astronomers to watch New Horizons flyby

NASA spaceship zooms toward farthest world ever

NASA spaceship zooms toward farthest world ever

An anxious spill-over crowd in a nearby auditorium joined in the loud celebration, cheering each green, or good, status update.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto. This "light curve" is the changes in brightness over time that New Horizons should pick up from Ultima Thule, as it rotates in space and the different features on its surface reflect back different amounts of light from the Sun (even at its far distance). The craft is now so far from Earth that it takes six hours and eight minutes to receive a command from Earth.

Ultima Thule is the first destination to be reached that was not even known until after the spacecraft's launch.

"Nothing has happened to these things since they formed", said John Spencer, a member of the New Horizons science team, at a pre-flyby briefing. So they won't know until late morning whether the spacecraft survived.

Now comes the lengthy wait - up to 20 months - for all of the data and images collected by New Horizons to reach Mission Control, NASA says.

The closest approach between the probe and the asteroid occurred at 05:33 GMT.

But the best colour close-ups will not be available until later in January and February.

The nerdiest New Year's party in the solar system is happening 4billion miles from Earth, where a lone, intrepid explorer is en route to the furthest object humans have ever explored.

A tiny, icy world a billion miles beyond Pluto is getting a New Year's Day visitor.

"New Horizons will continue in that legacy", Stern wrote.

Seven instruments on board will record high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition. Then the spacecraft was to turn briefly toward Earth to transmit word of its success. Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014. Traveling at 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), the spacecraft could easily be knocked out by a rice-size particle. A series of three approach photos revealed the reason: The rotation axis of MU69 was pointed toward the spacecraft, said Hal Weaver, the mission's project scientist.

"The data we have look fantastic, and we're already learning about Ultima from up close", Stern said. "By tomorrow, we'll know how we did". It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.

The risk added to the excitement.

"This is completely unknown territory, which is what makes us all so excited at this moment."
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.

Lead planetary scientist for New Horizons, Alan Stern, said Ultima Thule is unique because it is a relic from the early days of the solar system and could provide answers about the origins of other planets.

Our Solar System is a big place, and Ultima Thule is very far away.

That object - nicknamed Ultima Thule - was first glimpsed at long distance by the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2014, but it wasn't until just now in 2019 that scientists got an up-close look to better understand this mysterious far-flung mass. It is thought to be the shape of a potato and dark in color with a touch of red, the result of being zapped by cosmic rays for eons. There's even the slight possibility that it might be two objects closely orbiting one another, although this is considered to be less likely, the AP reported.

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