Ultima Thule already looks weird in first image

Ultima Thule already looks weird in first image

Ultima Thule already looks weird in first image

"Last night, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly", said Alan Stern, principal investigator.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto.

The new year on Earth began with a record-setting space mission 4 billion miles away - a first look at an object on the edge of our solar system.

Fans will have to wait for more scientific data and a close-up image of Ultima Thule, which isn't expected to be released until 9 p.m. EST tonight.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used the name Ultima Thule to refer to a distant place lurking just beyond the borders of the known world.

The NASA New Horizons spacecraft today reached the most distant target in history. From its brightness and size, New Horizons team members have calculated Ultima's reflectivity, which is only about 10 per cent, or about as dark as garden dirt.

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.

Delighted mission controllers confirmed that the robotic explorer survived its encounter with Ultima Thule early Tuesday morning and had started transmitting the images and data it gathered during the historic flyby. Confirmation won't come for hours, though, given the vast distance.

May says Alan Stern, the Project Instigator of the NASA Mission, who approached him in May about writing a special song.

Since then, over a decade's worth of scientific advancements has helped us to learn more about the Kuiper Belt and the unusual worlds that might inhabit it, but there's no denying that this first up-close brush with an actual Kuiper Belt Object is an unprecedented accomplishment.

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. "We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", announced Alice Bowman, mission operations manager. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once new and better pictures arrive.

In 2014, astronomers found Thule using the Hubble Space Telescope and the following year selected it for New Horizon's extended mission.

By week's end, "Ultima Thule is going to be a completely different world, compared to what we're seeing now", Weaver noted.

However, Nasa did also suggest that it could still be "two objects orbiting each other", so this particular case hasn't been cracked entirely.

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

New Horizons completed a successful flyby of Pluto three years ago, and returned stunning images of the dwarf planet. "So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons".

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

'Because of where it was formed and the fact that Ultima is not large enough to have a geologic engine like Pluto and larger planets, we expect that Ultima is the most well-preserved sample of a planetary building block ever explored.

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.

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