NASA Probe Sends Historic Message Back

Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons made contact with NASA around 10:15 a.m. ET confirming the successful flyby past Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object more than 4 billion miles away, NASA reports.

Alan Stern, the lead planetary scientist on the New Horizons mission, told reporters that 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.

This flyby is the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft. But until it came into New Horizons' view, Ultima remained little more than a distant dot hardly different from the stars behind it.

A series of anxiously awaited "phone home" signals arrived after 10.30am (11.30pm Singapore time), indicating that the spacecraft had made it, intact, through the risky, high-speed encounter.

"This flyby is the culmination of years of careful planning and hard work, and we can't wait to transform Ultima Thule into a real world", said New Horizons project manager Dr. Helene Winters, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

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There are also cryptic shots of a computer interface with clues such as the words: "When blue and yellow meet in the west". We already know the names of the eight episodes in the forthcoming third series , which were revealed in early December.

As the probe flies 2,200 miles (3,500 km) above Thule's surface, scientists hope it will detect the chemical composition of its atmosphere and terrain in what NASA says will be the closest observation of a body so remote. Confirmation was not expected for hours, though, given the vast distance.

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.

A contact binary object is when two large objects - asteroids or comets - orbit each other so closely that they touch. In fact, it takes more than six hours for radio signals carrying information from New Horizons to deliver the data to NASA's Deep Space Network. This marks the farthest-ever flyby in human history - at about 4 billion miles from the Sun, Ultima Thule makes Pluto seem like a next-door neighbor by comparison.

New Horizons will continue to zoom farther away.

To put into perspective just how incredible this is, the probe is two billion km past Neptune - the furthest of the classical planets - and 1.5 billion km past Pluto, which New Horizons studied in 2015.

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The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises. He was also inspired to release a new song celebrating New Horizons on New Year's Day. By the time the first images and data stream back to Earth, the borders of the known world will have expand once more.

"We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed - we think". Now, it is heading towards the edge of the solar system and will shortly reach Ultima Thule, where it will complete a historic flyby. "We'll find out soon enough".

It looks like a giant bowling pin.

"This is just a first glimpse of what is rapidly going to get better from here on out, " Spencer said.

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