NASA's New Horizons spacecraft's latest flyby target - an object dubbed "Ultima Thule" - may hold a well-preserved cache of secrets frozen in time from the ancient past of the solar system, scientists say.
(You can watch the New Horizons flyby here.) If all goes well, the car-sized probe, launched in January 2006, will pass about three times closer to Ultima than it did Pluto.
But a new, though still blurry image released Tuesday showed its oblong shape resembles something like a bowling pin or a peanut, and its dimensions are about 22 miles long and nine miles wide (35 by 15 kilometers). Scientists wanted the spacecraft staring down Ultima Thule and collecting data, not turning toward Earth to phone home.
New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule.
Previously, New Horizons swooped by Pluto in 2015, capturing the icy, mountainous world in unprecedented detail. The NASA team (led by Alan Stern, pictured celebrating its success above) only had one shot at getting close enough to the rock as New Horizons is whipping past at 31,5000 miles per hour. It then was repurposed to fly more than 1 billion miles beyond the dwarf planet to the Kuiper Belt, a region of space containing potentially billions of small objects left over from the formation of the solar system.
The space object is actually called (486958) 2014 MU69 and is believed to have formed more than four billion years ago during the very beginning of our solar system's history, so is a relic of a bygone age which could help scientist unravel the mystery of how all the planets formed. From here out the data will just get better and better, " Stern added.
Since then, over a decade's worth of scientific advancements has helped us to learn more about the Kuiper Belt and the odd worlds that might inhabit it, but there's no denying that this first up-close brush with an actual Kuiper Belt Object is an unprecedented accomplishment.
Ultima Thule belongs to a class of Kuiper belt objects called the "cold classicals", which have almost circular orbits with low inclinations to the solar plane, and which have not been perturbed since their formation perhaps 4.6 billion years ago.
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"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft, and by tomorrow we'll know how we did", Stern told reporters on Monday.
The flyby took place at 12.33 EST today, but because New Horizons is so far away it takes around six hours to send data back to mission control at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory. The pixelated image does not exclude the possibility that Ultima Thule is really two objects in close proximity or in contact.
"We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", mission operations manager Alice Bowman said.
Expect never-before-seen high-resolution images and new science to come streaming in Wednesday and over the next few days. "Think of it. We're a billion miles farther than Pluto".
"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.
Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.
The twin planetary feats coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when United States astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 in December 1968.
"The data we have look fantastic and we're already learning about Ultima from up close". "It seems only fitting that the New Horizons flyby relied upon Maunakea/CFHT data".