NASA’s New Horizons probe makes record-breaking fly-by of Ultima Thule
NASA’s New Horizons probe has flown past Ultima Thule — a ball of dust and ice that’s 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth.
- It will take months for NASA to recieve data from today’s fly-by
- Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe launched in 2006, bound for Pluto and its moons
- While Ultima Thule is the farthest object NASA has investigated, Voyager 1 and 2 are farthest human-made objects from Earth
It is the farthest away from the Sun any spacecraft has ever investigated an object, with New Horizons taking over 13 years to reach the rock.
The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the “third zone” in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt on Tuesday morning, with scientists having to anxiously wait for hours for an official confirmation via the probe’s communications system.
While celebrating at NASA’s headquarters, principal investigator Alan Stern said it would take months to receive the data from today’s fly-by.
“This really just starts with the downlink and transmissions that begin tomorrow, and will last for a year-and-a-half,” he said.
“We set a record. Never before has a spacecraft explored anything so far away.
“Think about it — we’re a billion miles further than Pluto.”
Joining the celebrations of enthusiastic scientists was Brian May, who is a guitarist with rock band Queen and also an astrophysicist.
“I can’t believe what we’re going to see. The thing is we have no idea what we are going to see, which is what makes it so great, isn’t it?” May said.
“This is completely unknown territory, which is what makes us all so excited at this moment.”
Queen guitarist Brian May was among the excited scientists celebrating the achievement. (Reuters: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on a 4-billion-mile journey toward the solar system’s frigid edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.
New Horizons examined Pluto when it flew past the dwarf-planet three years ago.
Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched, according to NASA, making the mission unique in that respect.
In 2014, astronomers found Thule using the Hubble Space Telescope and selected it for New Horizon’s extended mission in 2015.
While Ultima Thule is the farthest object NASA has investigated, the agency’s New Horizon’s probe is not the farthest human-made object from Earth.
Voyager 1 and 2 have both reached interstellar space, the region between the stars, crossing the threshold in August 2012 and November 2018 respectively.
Illustration showing spacecraft journeys in the solar system
(Supplied: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Magda Saina)