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Space + FlightSpace & Flight

New Horizons Ultima Thule Flyby Updates

BySukee BennettNOVA NextNOVA Next
New Horizons Ship

The New Horizons spacecraft, which launched in 2006, is currently 4 billion miles away from Earth. It's scheduled to conduct a flyby of Ultima Thule, a small object in the Kuiper Belt, at 12:33 a.m. ET on Jan. 1, 2019.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft confirmed a successful flyby of the enigmatic Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, just a few days shy of the thirteenth anniversary of the space probe’s initial launch in 2006, yesterday.

NOVA is reporting live from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD.

NASA's New Horizons team just released the first images captured by the New Horizons spacecraft during the Ultima Thule flyby.

Ultima Thule Revealed1

“What you’re seeing is the first contact binary ever explored by spacecraft," New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said shortly after revealing the most up-to-date photo of Ultima Thule released by the NASA New Horizons team. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

“Just about 36 hours ago, New Horizons swept down on Ultima Thule in an event that’s never been attempted before when it comes to space flight," NASA New Horizons' Principal Investigator Alan Stern said. "We didn’t even know of this object until 2014. It’s only about as large as Washington D.C., and about as dull as garden dirt," Stern added of Ultima Thule with a laugh. He explained that before the flyby event, New Horizons had to plunge toward Ultima at a speed of 32,000 miles an hour.

"I don’t think we stressed this enough," he said. "What this team and this spacecraft did is unprecedented."

Carly Howett, a planetary scientist on the New Horizons team, explained that "now, we can definitively say that Ultima is red." "Both lobes—both Ultima and Thule—are red," she said. "But the neck section is brighter."

Ultima is Red

Using a composite of pictures, the NASA New Horizons team was able to discern the color of Ultima Thule—a rusty red.

On the morning of January 1, at approximately 10:31 a.m. EST, the New Horizons team received their first information from the spacecraft's historic flyby.

"Ultima Thule is finally revealing its secrets to us. And even though it’s still a pixelated blob," Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist, said, "it’s a better pixelated blob."

Shape-wise, the team explained at the time, the now iconic Kuiper Belt object could be one of two things: a double-lobed peanut-like object, or two objects orbiting each other.


An image of Ultima Thule, taken before the flyby and unveiled on New Year's Day. Ultima Thule may be a single, peanut-shaped object, or two objects stuck together; it's also still possible that there are two closely associated objects orbiting each other. New Horizons is thought to be approaching it from the side, as if descending down onto the top of a rotating propeller. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

“We have a healthy spacecraft," Alice Bowman, the New Horizons Mission Operations Manager, AKA "MOM," said. "We just completed the farthest flyby.”

Alan Stern hugs Alice Bowman

Alan Stern, the New Horizons mission principal investigator, hugs Alice Bowman, mission operations manager, after receiving news of a successful flyby.

Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist, cheered from the front row as Bowman's team announced that the spacecraft was healthy and had power.

Hal Weaver Cheers

Hal Weaver, the New Horizons Mission project scientist, cheers from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory auditorium after receiving news of the successful Ultima Thule flyby.

Here's what New Horizons team members had to say the days leading up to the historic flyby:

"Things have been happening so fast. I think all of us have been working through the weekend, so don't ask us what day it is," Bowman said.

"This definitely is more stressful than Pluto. Pluto is a much larger object. We've known about Pluto since 1930. This object we only discovered in 2014," she adds of Ultima Thule, an object in the Kuiper Belt that is approximately 20 miles wide and 4 billion miles away, which New Horizons will attempt to fly by at 12:33 a.m. on New Year's Day (January 1). "This is a type of object that no spacecraft has ever observed up close. It's in an orbit that the scientists say has not been disturbed by anything since the formation of the solar system, so it's really, really neat to see what this object looks like and how it compares to the other objects that we see in our solar system."

"[Yesterday] morning we actually made a slight adjustment to the observations onboard the spacecraft—we call that a knowledge update—and we found that we were arriving a little bit late. So we needed to adjust a few seconds so that we would arrive at that optimum point. The subject is so small. It's possible that the observations that target the surface of Ultima could, worst case, be just black sky," Bowman said.


Alice Bowman tells NOVA about the New Horizons mission.

"We all feel this connection to the spacecraft even though it's four billion miles from Earth. We feel that connection and we're proud of what it has accomplished and what it will accomplish."

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“We could see Pluto begin to show itself months ahead of time. And days and weeks ahead, we had a very good idea of what Pluto looked like," Encounter Mission Manager Mark Holdridge, who has been working on the New Horizon's mission for 17 years, said. "Ultima—it's not showing us anything. We won't be able to tell anything about shape until after the flyby when we get some of the first pictures back. We'll begin to see sort of its secrets revealed...That's the hope anyhow. But you never really know."

Mark Holdridge

Mark Holdridge tells NOVA about the New Horizons mission.

"You spend years preparing for something like this and before you know it it's over. And sometimes you forget—you get caught up in the moment. You really do have to slow down once and say, 'This is really it. Let's make the most of this.'"

"Pluto and Beyond" premieres Wednesday, January. 2 at 9/8c on PBS.

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