Per Brian Lada, AccuWeather Meteorologist and Team Writer
January 7, 2019, 8:30:23 EST
NASA's New Horizon spacecraft made history on New Year's Day as it passed through a small snowman object 4 billion miles from Earth known as Ultima Thule.
At 12:33 AM on January 1, New Horizons made its closest approach to the Ultima Thule, at a distance of approximately 2,200 miles. This is comparable to the distance from the east coast to the west coast of the United States.
Shortly after whirring by Ultima Thule, the spacecraft sent back its first images of the small world.
"The first exploration of a small object in the Kuiper Belt and the furthest exploration of any world in history is now history, but almost all of the data analysis is in the future," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder , Colorado.
This is the second time that New Horizons explores a distant world. In 2015, it captivated millions after sending the first images of Pluto.
More images will be sent back to Earth in the coming months with high resolution images that should not be received until February. However, New Horizons will take much longer to send back all photos and recorded data.
"Although the overflight is fast, it will take about 20 months to downlink the complete set of spacecraft data, which is more than 4 billion kilometers from the Sun" NASA said.
Even though New Horizons has sent only a fraction of the data collected, scientists already have clues about how the odd-shaped object may have formed billions of years ago.
"The new images revealed Ultima Thule as a" contact binary, "consisting of two connected beads," NASA said.
(Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute)
Sending a spacecraft into the confines of the solar system was no easy task for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
New Horizons was launched from Earth on January 19, 2006 to begin its long journey to Pluto. However, Ultima Thule was not discovered until June 26, 2014, by the Hubble Space Telescope.
After the spacecraft explored Pluto in July 2015, NASA scientists set their course that established their upcoming meeting with Ultima Thule on New Year's Day. This required extreme accuracy, in part because of its small size compared to Pluto.
"Never before has any team of spacecraft crawled such a small body at such high speed so far into the abyss of space," Stern said.
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The successful flight will provide a myriad of data that will help scientists understand how our solar system was formed more than 4 billion years ago.
"The New Horizons mission is helping us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by first recognizing the dwarf planet Pluto and venturing deeper into the mysterious and distant Kuiper Belt – a relic of the formation of the solar system," said NASA.
"Sending a spacecraft on this long journey is helping us answer basic questions about surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on those bodies," NASA said.
Now that New Horizons has gone through Ultima Thule, scientists will start looking for another object in the Kuiper Belt for the space probe to explore.
This can be challenging, especially since the objects in this part of the solar system are very small and difficult to see, even with telescopes like Hubble.
One option to help find new objects would be to use the camera in New Horizons, known as the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), to try to find nearby objects in the Kuiper belt.
"LORRI could take hundreds or even thousands of photographs of the stars around the spacecraft. Instead of sending these images back to Earth, it may be possible to program the computer to look for the best targets and just send those images home, "said SPACE.com.
Eventually, the New Horizons will end its journey through the Kuiper Belt and travel into interstellar space, eventually leaving our solar system.
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