NASA celebrated the New Year with the historic New Horizons spacecraft survey of the world’s farthest and perhaps the oldest surviving celestial object, Ultima Thule, located some 6.4 billion kilometers from the Earth, hoping to learn more about planet formation.
A series of eagerly awaited signals that the probe had survived its high-risk mission came on Tuesday shortly after 10:30 am (EST), prompting shouts of joy in the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. It took nearly 10 hours for these signals to reach Earth, the US Space Agency said.
New Horizons “is in working order,” said Alice Bowman, a project manager. “We have just completed the furthest flight” ever done, she said.
Nearly ten hours ago, at 0 h 33, New Horizons turned its cameras on Ultima Thule, a frozen vestige of the formation of the solar system. The images and data collected by the probe will begin arriving later on Tuesday. New Horizons was to take 900 images in seconds during its flight over Ultima Thule at a distance of about 3500 kilometers.
Never before has a spacecraft explored an object so far away.
A first shot of Ultima Thule, taken 1.9 million kilometers “only”, has already delivered a first surprise: on this rather blurry image, this object of small size (20 to 30 km in diameter) seems to have a shape elongated rather than round.
More photographs are expected to arrive on Earth for the next three days.
“Science will help us understand the origins of the solar system,” Bowman said.
“That’s one night that none of us will ever forget,” said Rock Queen guitarist Brian May, who also holds a PhD in astrophysics, who recorded a solo piece for opportunity.
A dangerous mission
The challenge of this mission is to understand how the planets were formed, often explained its director, Alan Stern.
“This object is so iced that it is kept in its original form,” he says. All that we will learn about Ultima – its composition, its geology, how it formed, whether it has satellites or the atmosphere – will tell us about the conditions of formation of solar system objects. “
Ultima Thule, discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope, is located in the Kuiper belt, a vast cosmic disk, a remnant of the time of planet formation that astronomers sometimes call the “attic” of the solar system.
The scientists decided to send New Horizons to study it , after the spacecraft had completed in 2015 – nine years after its launch – its main mission: to send extremely detailed images of Pluto.
This time, “we will try to have Ultima images with a resolution three times that used for Pluto,” said Stern. If we get there, it will be spectacular. “
It’s the frontier of astronomy. We finally reached the limits of the solar system. These things have been there from the beginning, and we think they have not changed. We will check.
51,500 kilometers per hour
The main structure of New Horizons is 0.7 meters high, 2.1 meters long and 2.7 meters wide. A parabolic antenna 2.1 meters in diameter is attached to the upper deck. The probe, the size of a grand piano, is piloted by Quebecer Frédéric Pelletier, an aerospace engineer. He positioned the probe to record the data.
“It is very far, it is very cold, and the celestial bodies are still in conditions that resemble those of the planets at the beginning of the formation of the solar system. It’s like a trip back in time, “he said about the mission on Friday at Gravel’s microphone in the morning .
New Horizons travels the universe to 51 500 kilometers per hour. At this pace, if it hit a debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly. Every 20 minutes, infrared cameras and infrared sensors capture images from Ultima Thule to ” as it turns and we get closer, we have good data from all parts, ” says John Spencer, scientist of the Southwest Research Institute.
Ultima Thule was named after a distant island of medieval literature. “It means ” beyond Thule ” – beyond the known limits of our world, to symbolize exploration beyond the Kuiper belt,” says NASA.
Discovered in the 90s, this belt is some 4.8 billion kilometers from the Sun, beyond the orbit of Neptune, the planet that is the furthest away.