New Horizons Probe Flies By Distant Asteroid Ultima Thule

A mock-up of the Chang'e-4 lunar lander

Can't connect right now! Owing to the probe's great distance from Earth and the relative weakness of its signal, it took several hours for scientists to receive and process the image.

More images and data will start arriving later Tuesday, offering scientists the first up-close look at an ancient building block of planets, Bowman said.

The spacecraft team that brought us close-ups of Pluto will ring in the new year by exploring an even more distant and mysterious world. 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.

Joining the celebrations of enthusiastic scientists was Brian May, who is a guitarist with rock band Queen and also an astrophysicist.

NASA's New Horizons completed a close approach to a small body in the distant Kuiper Belt early January 1, collecting data that may reveal new insights about the formation of the solar system.

"The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation", he said.

The space object is actually called (486958) 2014 MU69 and is believed to have formed more than four billion years ago during the very beginning of our solar system's history, so is a relic of a bygone age which could help scientist unravel the mystery of how all the planets formed.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 32 km long, though there's a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck.

Pluto explorer ushering in new year at more distant world
Scientists are looking forward to their first up close glimpse at a Kuiper Belt object and already have some mysteries to unravel. Generally speaking, KBOs are thought to be primarily icy bodies that formed at the same time as the solar system.

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But New Horizons' performance so far suggests it is ready for the challenge, Stern said. It was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope and added to New Horizons' itinerary.

As the clock strikes midnight on the east coast of the United States, you can tune in to NASA TV to join the space agency at mission control in the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, as the world celebrates the arrival of New Horizons at Ultima Thule.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. The first was to provide information about the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons, and then travel further out to the Kuiper Belt to gather more data.

"There's a lot of chatter in the science team room", Spencer said.

"I think it is fitting that this Ultima Thule flyby is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 in 2018 and the 50th of Apollo 11 in 2019", said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NASA said the orbit some 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) away marks "a leap for humankind" because no spacecraft has ever "circled so close to such a small space object - one with barely enough gravity to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit".

In an editorial in The New York Times, Stern recalled that December 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when U.S. astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8.

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