NASA space probe 'phones home' in landmark mission to solar system's edge

05 January, 2019, 06:44 | Author: Priscilla Morrison
  • Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule, as the small, icy object has been dubbed, was found to consist of two fused-together spheres, one of them three times bigger than the other, extending about 21 miles (33 kilometers) in length.

"Last night, overnght, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly", New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told a news conference at the Johns Hopkins facility in Laurel, Maryland.

A day ago, scientists released a blurry picture of the small body also known by its official designation 2014 MU69 taken from a distance of half a million miles, taken before the flyby.

Ultima Thule in colour.

"What we think we're looking at is the end product of a process that took place at the very beginning of the formation of the solar system", Moore said.

Jeff Moore, the mission's team lead for geology and geophysics, likened New Horizons to a time machine, taking scientists back to the birth of the solar system.

After New Horizons has had a chance to get closer to the object, to determine more about its characteristics, NASA scientists will decide on a permanent name.

In an image provided by NASA, the first clear image of the object nicknamed Ultima Thule, beamed back after the New Horizons spacecraft's flyby on January 1, 2019. The image on the left is an enhanced color image, the center image is a higher resolution image of the object and the right image shows the color overlaid onto the higher resolution image.




But even as the researchers celebrated their triumph of celestial navigation, the mission drew unwanted attention for the name Ultima Thule. Note the reduced red coloring at the neck of the object.

Nasa said that the goal of the New Horizons mission was to explore Pluto and Kuiper Belt to study "the origins and outskirts of our solar system".

As the new year arrived here on Earth, the team at NASA began receiving the first data from the New Horizons spacecraft confirming it had reached a mysterious object on the outer edge of our solar system.

The images we have of the object now show no obvious impact craters, but there are hills and ridges.

The images have been taken from as close as 17,000 miles, though it will take days for the high-resolution photos to be uploaded to Earth, given the bandwidth limitations of moving data across the span of the entire solar system.

This is consistent with other irradiated objects that are in the Kuiper Belt, Carly Howett, mission co-investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, said yesterday.

He added: "It is going to revolutionise our knowledge of planetary science".

As a preserved relic from that original time, Ultima Thule also promises to shed light on the so-called Kuiper Belt, or Twilight Zone, in which hundreds of thousands of objects reside well beyond Neptune. "We have far less than 1 percent of the data ... already down on the ground", Stern said.

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