New Horizons probe closes in on remote body Ultima Thule

Зонд NASA приблизился к границе Солнечной системы

Just hours before a historic rendezvous with Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft, scientists with NASA's New Horizons mission are getting a first tantalizing glimpse of their target.

The science team for NASA's New Horizon spacecraft released its first multi-pixel view of Ultima Thule, an icy world more than 4 billion miles from Earth, and the analysis suggests it's an elongated space cigar.

John Spencer, from the Southwest Research Institute, added: "Now it is just a matter of time to see the data coming down".

"We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft", Stern said at a news conference Monday.

Nasa rang in the new year with a live online broadcast to mark the spacecraft's zoom past the mysterious object located in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.

The flyby of Ultima Thule is scheduled for 12:15 a.m. ET, January 1, 2019.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 32 km long, though there's a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck.

New Horizons has crept closer to Ultima Thule over the last three months and began sending back hundreds of photos about the area.

FILE - This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule," indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on August 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft.

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In 2015, New Horizons sped past Pluto and sent back the most detailed photographs of the icy dwarf planet humanity has ever seen. It will be the farthest ever exploration of a body in our solar system.

Its destination, Ultima Thule, "is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", he added, recalling that December 1968 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when US astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8.

On Monday, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory repeatedly underscored how little anyone still knows about Ultima Thule. Its name means "distant places beyond the known world". Cold classicals are thought to rank among the solar system's most primitive objects, and New Horizons' encounter could shed more light on the process that led to planetary formation. The spacecraft is reportedly the size of a baby grand piano and is expected to hurtle within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule.

Even clearer images should be in hand over the next three days.

Where to watch: The probe's team will gather at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, where they will watch the spacecraft fly across space.

New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million United States mission, was expected to hurtle to within 3,500 km of Ultima Thule, considerably closer than the Pluto encounter of 2015.

He described the New Horizons spaceship as an "amazing piece of American workmanship, operating essentially flawlessly in space for well over a decade".

"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver. "We will find out".

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