Space

Space probe makes most distant flyby in space

By Ted Bonnitt on January 1st, 2019
Space probe makes most distant flyby in space
Early close up image of Ultima Thule taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows the bowling pin shaped object. Four billion miles from Earth, it is the most distant space object ever visited. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
Early close up image of Ultima Thule taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows the bowling pin shaped object. Four billion miles from Earth, it is the most distant space object ever visited. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

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

Snapping pictures and gathering data as it flew by at well over 30,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft passed within 2200 miles of 2014 MU69, better known as “Ultima Thule,” a 22 mile long and 9 mile wide bowling pin shaped rock. Because Ultima Thule is about 4 billion miles from Earth, it will take up to 20 months for the probe to radio back to Earth the 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 effort of NASA, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute.

New Horizons 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, a giant cluster of icy rocks that surround the outer solar system. The rocks are cast-offs from gravitational forces that created the planets in our solar system. These 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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