NASA's Record-Breaking Probe Zooms Past Frozen Rock Billions of Miles Away

While earthlings were nursing their New Year’s hangovers, a NASA probe flew past the most distant space object ever reached by humanity. Tuesday morning, the New Horizons spacecraft beamed a signal back to Earth confirming that it has whizzed passed a frozen rock at the fringes of the solar systems, known as Ultima Thule.

Mission operations manager, Alice Bowman announced at around 10:30 a.m. Eastern that New Horizon is still operational more than 4 billion miles away. The probe has set a new bar for space exploration and it will slowly begin to transmit image data of Ultima Thule back to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

“We have a healthy spacecraft. We’ve just accomplished the most distant flyby,” said Bowman on a NASA live stream. “We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmission today, science that will help us understand the origins of our Solar System.”

At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule's size and shape so far. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). An artist's impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. The direction of Ultima's spin axis is indicated by the arrows.

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI; sketch courtesy of James Tuttle Keane

New Horizons flew within 2,191 miles of Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. The ancient space rock’s name means “beyond the borders of the known world,” can hold secrets about the formation of the Solar System. But New Horizons isn’t done there.

It will continue to venture into the great unknown gathering information about anything it approaches using its toolkit of onboard surveillance equipment. The probe can capture images, map the surfaces of objects, and measure temperature.

New Horizon has been scouting the Solar System since it was launched in 2006. The probe made history in 2015 by flying by becoming the first mission ti fly by Pluto.

As long as it stays operational, New Horizon will continue to shatter space exploration records where ever it travels next.

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