NASA spacecraft survives risky encounter with faraway dark world

NASA's New Horizons probe passes Ultima Thule in most distant flyby by man-made spacecraft

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern gives a high five to NASA mission operations manager Alice. Image NASA Bill Ingalls

"Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away". According to NASA calculations, the lowest distance between the probe and the asteroid at that time was only 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles).

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule," indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft. "We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmission".

These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years.

"It is probably the best time capsule we've ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it, " Stern said.

But the encounter itself was risky, and if the spacecraft were to collide with a speck of space debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly, mission managers warned. "But I'd be kidding you if I didn't tell you that we're also on pins and needles to see how this turns out".

NASA's Deep Space Network received a signal from the spacecraft at 10:30 a.m.

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One scientist confirmed the good news: "We have a healthy spacecraft".

The Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, was selected partly because it was close enough for the spacecraft to visit before it ran out of fuel.

A visualization of the New Horizons spacecraft flying by Ultima Thule on New Year's Day.

Stern said his bet is that the object is a single body, not two pieces orbiting each other, but he would wait until more, clearer images arrive Wednesday to say for sure. This first image of the peanut-shaped object will be followed by more scientific data and higher-resolution images over the next few hours and days. "This is exploration at its finest", said Adam L. Hamilton, president and CEO of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement.

As for the "cold, classical" part, Ultima Thule's orbit has a very low "inclination", meaning that it travels around the Sun in roughly the same plane as all the planets (except Pluto), and its orbit is almost circular (unlike Pluto). Its name means "distant places beyond the known world".

About 10 hours earlier, NASA celebrated the New Year's flyby, at 12:33am (05:33 GMT) when the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock 6.4 billion km away in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.

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"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver.

Wherever we've explored in the Solar System, we've found the unexpected. "This flyby marks a first for all of us - APL, NASA, the nation and the world - and it is a great credit to the bold team of scientists and engineers who brought us to this point".

In an editorial in The New York Times, Stern recalled that December 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when USA astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8.

Tired from dual countdowns late Monday and early Tuesday, the New Horizons team members were visibly anxious as they reassembled in late morning.

"As you celebrate New Year's Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the wonderful things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it", Stern wrote in the New York Times on Monday.

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