Ultima Thule: an unexplored ‘time capsule’ of ancient past

A mock-up of the Chang'e-4 lunar lander

Just as the new year began, so too did an incredible new era of space exploration, with NASA confirming a successful flyby of the most distant world human beings have ever encountered.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft notched a second triumph in its belt, passing close by a second object two-and-a-half years since it passed Pluto.

This time, the drama was set to unfold more than 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth, so far away that it will be 10 hours before flight controllers find out whether the spacecraft survived the flyby.

The last blobby picture sent back before the flyby - the best available so far - showed that Ultima Thule is 35 by 15 kilometer, with a blurry peanut shape, so it is either "bi-lobate", with a different size for each lobe, or it could be two objects whose images blurred together.

But despite the festive atmosphere - which included the release of a New Horizons song recorded by contributing scientist and rock guitarist Brian May of Queen, who was on hand for the event - the mission team had no way of knowing if their spacecraft was still in one piece and executing its reconnaissance of Ultima Thule.

We do know that Ultima Thule has a reddish colour, probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years.

Ultima Thule will therefore be the most primitive planetary object yet explored, and will reveal to us what conditions were like in this distant part of the solar system as it condensed from the solar nebula. Once received, the signals confirmed that the flyby had taken place and that New Horizons was operating perfectly. Before exploring the edge of the solar system, the spacecraft was the first to capture Pluto.

While celebrating at NASA's headquarters, principal investigator Alan Stern said it would take months to receive the data from today's fly-by.

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NASA speeds toward historic flyby of faraway world, Ultima Thule
For that reason, Stern said he and his colleagues were "on pins and needles to see how this turns out". New Horizons first launched in 2006 with the goal of doing a flyby study of the Pluto system by 2015.

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Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth.

Engineers at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland cheered when the spacecraft's first signals came through the National Aeronautic and Space Agency's Deep Space Network at 10.28am on Tuesday (local time). Cheers erupted at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control, as mission operations manager Alice Bowman declared: "We have a healthy spacecraft". It was also used to create the star catalog that calibrated Hubble images of the object, CFHT representatives say, which has allowed for New Horizons to change its course correctly in order to observe Ultima Thule.

"Its geology and composition should teach us a lot about how these building blocks of small planets like Pluto were formed". Given the uncertainty of MU69's position-it was discovered only four years ago and only a fraction of its orbit is known-New Horizons' first images had to cover a wide field, at low resolution.

The answer is one that scientists already suspected: Ultima Thule's spin axis is roughly pointed toward Earth, so that it appears somewhat like a turning propeller with the illuminated side constantly facing earthbound telescopes.

'I was inspired by the idea that this is the furthest that the Hand of Man has ever reached - it will be by far the most distant object we have ever seen at close quarters, through the images which the space craft will beam back to Earth.

"Ultima Thule is finally revealing its secrets to us", said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins.

That better data won't take long to start turning up.

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