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LAUREL, MARYLAND—Cheers erupted just after 10:30 AM Eastern this morning in a small control room at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) here. Alice Bowman, the mission operation manager for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, had just announced that the spacecraft had successfully rendezvoused with MU69, a tiny, frigid object on the edge of the solar system, nearly twice as far as Pluto . “We’ve just accomplished the most distant flyby,” she said.
Because of transmission delays and the finite speed of radio waves, the triumph occurred last night, at 12:33 A.M. Eastern time, while the team was celebrating the New Year with sparkling wine and a new song from Brian May, the Queen guitarist--and, thanks to his astrophysics degree, a participating scientist on the mission. The 10-hour lag had been a tense wait for some of the team, fretful that their weeks-long search for hazards around MU69 (or “Ultima Thule,” its nickname), such as fugitive moons or rings, had missed something before the spacecraft sped past at a distance of some 3,500 kilometers. But Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute who is principal investigator for the $800 million mission, which explored Pluto in 2015, said he was confident. “I wasn’t worried about it. Got a nice night’s sleep.”
Hour - Wait - Probe - Series - Observations
Finally, after a four hour wait for the probe to complete a series of automated observations with its three cameras and six more hours for the transmission to reach Earth from MU69’s location in the distant Kuiper Belt, 6.6 billion kilometers from Earth, the first drips of data arrived via NASA’s 70-meter Deep Space Network antenna in Madrid, Spain: New Horizons had hurdled past MU69 at 14 kilometers per second and survived. “In lock with telemetry,” said Bowman.
A roll call of the spacecraft’s instruments followed, with each reporting...
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