Space Probe Reaches Most Distant Flyby in Space

By Ted Bonnitt on January 1st, 2019

NASA’s New Horizons space probe had a successful close encounter on New Year’s Eve with the most distant object ever visited by Earthlings.

The spacecraft blew by 2014 MU69, better known as “Ultima Thule,” a 22 mile long and 9 mile wide bowling pin shaped object at well over 30,000 mph, snapping pictures as it passed. Because Ultima Thule is about 4 billion miles from Earth, it will take 20 months for the probe to radio back to Earth high resolution images it took.

The nickname Ultima Thule means “beyond the borders of the known world”, and was chosen from over 34,000 public naming submissions. The mission is a joint efforts off NASA, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute.

New Horizon is another deep space exploration success story, having performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015 before traveling another billion miles to last night’s rendezvous with Ultima Thule. The craft could have another, yet announced celestial encounter in the future if NASA decides to extend the probe’s mission.

Both Pluto and Ultima Thule reside in the Kuiper belt, icy rocks that surround the outer solar system. The rocks are cast-offs from gravitational forces that created the planets in our solar system. The primordial objects contain keys to understanding the the origins of the universe.

Brian May, guitarist for the rock group Queen, and an astrophysicist by training recorded a musical tribute to the historic mission.

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