New Horizons completes flyby of Ultima Thule

Up to date 1 p.m. Japanese with press convention feedback.

LAUREL, Md. — NASA’s New Horizons accomplished an in depth method to a small physique within the distant Kuiper Belt early Jan. 1, gathering knowledge that will reveal new insights concerning the formation of the photo voltaic system.

New Horizons made its closest method to 2014 MU69, often known as Ultima Thule, at 12:33 a.m. Japanese, passing roughly three,500 kilometers from the Kuiper Belt object. Whereas the method was celebrated on the time throughout an occasion on the Johns Hopkins College Utilized Physics Laboratory (APL) right here, the spacecraft was not in communications with the Earth.

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NASA’s Deep Area Community obtained a sign from the spacecraft at 10:29 a.m. Japanese. That preliminary transmission contained no science knowledge however slightly telemetry concerning the well being of the spacecraft and its efficiency through the flyby, together with how a lot knowledge it collected. Future downlinks, together with one scheduled for later Jan. 1, will begin returning science knowledge.

“We now have a wholesome spacecraft,” mentioned Alice Bowman, the New Horizons mission operations supervisor, after reviewing that preliminary burst of telemetry from the spacecraft, 6.6 billion kilometers from the Earth. “We’ve simply achieved essentially the most distant flyby. We’re prepared for Ultima Thule science transmission.”

Previous to closest method, undertaking officers had been optimistic that the spacecraft would carry out the flyby as deliberate. “We’re very assured within the spacecraft and really assured within the plan that we have now for the exploration of Ultima,” mentioned Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, at a Dec. 31 press convention. “However I’d be kidding you if I didn’t let you know that we’re additionally on pins and needles to see how this seems.”

“The New Horizons crew makes it look straightforward. It’s not straightforward,” Stern mentioned at a press convention right here Jan. 1 after listening to again from the spacecraft. “From the whole lot that we will inform, they scored a 100 on the take a look at.”

Whereas the sign contained no science knowledge, undertaking scientists did launch some findings from knowledge collected previous to closest method and transmitted to Earth Dec. 31. That features a higher picture of Ultima Thule, which seems comparable in form to a peanut or bowling pin, about 35 kilometers lengthy and 15 kilometers large.

A composite picture (left) of 2014 MU69, aka Ultima Thule, taken by New Horizons Dec. 31, together with a sketch exhibiting the estimated rotation axis of the article. Credit score: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI; James Tuttle Keane

Stern mentioned scientists can’t rule out that Ultima Thule is a binary object, with two our bodies orbiting very shut to one another, however imagine it’s extra possible it’s a single physique with two distinct lobes.

That form wouldn’t be stunning. “Many of the small our bodies within the photo voltaic system are extremely elongated,” mentioned Hal Weaver, New Horizons undertaking scientist, as a result of the objects aren’t large sufficient that gravity can form them into one thing extra spherical. “We had been anticipating to have one thing alongside these strains.”

These pre-flyby observations additionally resolved a thriller concerning the lack of brightness variations because it rotated. Weaver mentioned photos taken as New Horizons approached revealed that the rotational pole of Ultima Thule was pointed virtually instantly on the spacecraft, as some scientists speculated in latest days. “It was virtually like a propeller blade,” Weaver mentioned, exhibiting the identical profile because it spun round. “There’s no change within the brightness as a result of we’re all the time seeing the identical facet.”

What’s not but clear, he added, is the rotation fee of the article. The observations thus far may be defined by rotation intervals of 15 and 30 hours, however upcoming knowledge ought to resolve that distinction.

Higher photos of Ultima Thule will come within the subsequent few days, with not less than one such picture scheduled for launch at a Jan. 2 briefing. “It’s going to be dramatically totally different,” Weaver mentioned. “Ultima Thule might be became an actual world.”

It’ll take about 20 months for New Horizons to transmit the estimated seven gigabytes of information it collected through the flyby. The following few days will see some high-resolution photos, Stern mentioned, though the sharpest photos — with an estimated decision pretty much as good as 33 meters per pixel — gained’t come down till February. Some preliminary spectral knowledge may even be returned this week.

The science crew will work with these knowledge this week, then take a break subsequent week when the spacecraft is in photo voltaic conjunction, with the solar blocking communications with the spacecraft. The science crew will reconvene round Jan. 15, Stern mentioned, after communications resume.

“The photographs that can begin to come down this week will already reveal the essential geology and construction of Ultima,” Stern mentioned. “We’re going to start out writing our first scientific paper subsequent week.”

What makes Ultima Thule attention-grabbing to scientists is that’s a part of a inhabitants of “chilly classical” Kuiper Belt objects whose orbits, with low inclinations and eccentricities, counsel that they’re pristine objects unaltered for the reason that formation of the photo voltaic system four.6 billion years in the past.

“Nothing has occurred to those issues since they fashioned,” mentioned John Spencer, a member of the New Horizons science crew, at a pre-flyby briefing. “It’s a really particular area that we’re very excited to discover.”

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