Nasa probe believed to have passed distant space rock on landmark mission

Nasa probe believed to have passed distant space rock on landmark mission

In 2015, New Horizons flew by Pluto, then the farthest object visited by a spacecraft from Earth.

Twenty-four hours before closest approach, Ultima Thule still takes up only two pixels in images taken by New Horizons' camera screen.

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. That's what makes this deep-freeze target so enticing; it's a preserved relic dating all the way back to our solar system's origin 4.5 billion years ago.

Now, New Horizons will beam the first information and images from this close flyby back to Earth.

NASA is holding a mid-morning briefing to give updates on the success of the mission.

The spacecraft is scheduled to pass within 2,200 miles of the large asteroid at 12:33 a.m. EST Tuesday, not long after the ball drops in Time Squares.

Now 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto for its second mission into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will study the makeup of Ultima Thule's atmosphere and terrain in a months-long study to seek clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets. "The exploration at Ultima Thule is a fitting way to honor the brash exploration and boldness that was Apollo", Stern wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times. But we won't know for sure that the spacecraft survived until the first data from closest approach streams back tomorrow morning.

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This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons passed within a few thousand miles of the oblong space rock known as Ultima Thule just after the calendar page turned to 2019 on the East Coast, and it's a huge achievement for the space agency and astronomy community in general.

As revellers watched fireworks exploding in the night sky, billions of kilometres beyond the spectacle, NASA's New Horizons probe quietly notched up another wonderful first - making its closest approach to the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

Hal Weaver, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and a project scientist on the New Horizons mission, said: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity". While it was originally reported that it would land on New Year's Eve, it is now more likely to be later in the week.

Dr. Stern added that while this week's images should be a dramatic improvement over what is now known about the Kuiper Belt, scientists will not have their best views downloaded until February. "We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft", Stern said at a news conference Monday.

New Horizons launched almost 13 years ago as part of NASA's New Frontiers program with the foremost mission of conducting a flyby of Pluto, which occurred in 2015. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

May was at Mission Control for the event, and today released the track New Horizons, his first solo single since 1998, on YouTube.

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. But the spacecraft will scan two dozen other Kuiper belt objects with its modest telescope, in the hopes of extrapolating its findings from MU69 to the broader belt. "We will find out".

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