Why New Horizons flyby is a space exploration milestone

Media playback is unsupported on your device                  Media caption Brian May

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern gives a high five too New Horizons Mission Operation Alice Bowman. As we wait for our close up look at Ultima Thule, it's hard not to get excited about what happens next.

Wherever we've explored in the Solar System, we've found the unexpected.

This composite image 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.

"Anything's possible out there in this very unknown region", said John Spencer, a deputy project scientist from Southwest Research Institute. The object is 20 miles long by 10 miles wide.

The data will be flowing in over the next few days, at a glacial rate of no more than 1,000 bits per second.

"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft that will continue after we're long gone here on Earth", she said.

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Because of the extreme distance and slow transmission rate, scientists do not expect to have a good view of Ultima Thule to share until Wednesday after they have worked with the raw data. He's particularly interested in stereo imaging for this leg of the mission.

Part of the delay was due to the fact that New Horizons had to finish loading up the scientific data before it could turn its antenna to transmit back, and another big factor was the 6-hour-plus light travel time for the signals.

Despite the government shutdown, several NASA scientists and other employees showed up at Johns Hopkins as private citizens, unwilling to miss history in the making.

NASA rang in the New Year on Tuesday with a historic flyby of the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever explored by humankind - a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule - in the hopes of learning more about how planets took shape. "This is what leadership in space exploration is all about".

Planetary researchers find its birthplace important for two reasons: (i) because that means this Kuiper belt object is an ancient sample of this distant portion of the Solar System, and (ii) because temperatures this far from the Sun are barely above absolute zero.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has survived humanity's most distant exploration of another world. "To have the chance to lead this from the inception through design and build and flight across the solar system, and now to our capstone in the Kuiper Belt, is the product of a lifetime, and it's something that dreams are made of". Radio signals take over six hours to cover the distance to Earth.

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New Horizons arrived three-and-a half years after it had flown past Pluto and 13 years after the craft, the size of a minivan, first left Earth. The challenge was all the greater because scientists did not yet have a suitable Kuiper Belt object in mind when New Horizons was launched.

The closest approach between the probe and the asteroid occurred at 05:33 GMT.

Scattered amongst the crowd are those who will carry on New Horizons' legacy - I've spotted team members from Nasa's Osiris-ReX spacecraft which entered orbit around the asteroid Bennu yesterday, and the leaders of upcoming missions to a odd metal asteroid called Psyche and to the trojan asteroids that share an orbit with Jupiter.

The object was previously known as 2014 MU69. "To me, this milestone for New Horizons is full of everything that NASA and NASA science is about".

Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the northernmost point on Earth.

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