NASA spacecraft opens new year at tiny, icy world past Pluto

phys.org | 1/1/2019 | Staff
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The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto opened the new year at an even more distant world, a billion miles beyond.

Flight controllers said everything looked good for New Horizons' flyby of the tiny, icy object at 12:33 a.m. Tuesday. Confirmation was not expected for hours, though, given the vast distance.

Target - Ultima - Thule - Miles - Kilometers

The mysterious, ancient target nicknamed Ultima Thule is 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) from Earth.

Scientists wanted New Horizons observing Ultima Thule during the encounter, not phoning home. So they had to wait until late morning before learning whether the spacecraft survived.

New - Horizons - Autopilot - Mission - Control

With New Horizons on autopilot, Mission Control was empty at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Instead, hundreds of team members and their guests gathered nearby on campus for back-to-back countdowns.

The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered, blew party horns and jubilantly waved small U.S. flags again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons' closest approach to Ultima Thule.

Pictures - Ultima - Thule - Tuesday - Confirmation

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following Tuesday's official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won't be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in color, it is hoped.

"We set a record. Never before has a spacecraft explored anything so far away," said the project's lead scientist who led the countdown to the close encounter, Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute. "Think of it. We're a billion miles farther than Pluto."

Stern - Beginning - Anniversary - Neil - Armstrong

Stern called it an auspicious beginning to 2019, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's footsteps on the moon in July 1969.

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the 'giant leap' of Apollo's lunar missions," Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

New - Horizons - Size - Baby - Piano

New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million...
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