Thirty-three minutes into the new year, scientists, engineers and well-wishers here at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory celebrated the moment that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to a small, icy world nicknamed Ultima Thule.
Almost 10 hours later, the New Horizons team finally received confirmation that the spacecraft had executed its planned observations flawlessly. In the days and months to come, the mission s scientists expect to receive pictures of Ultima Thule and scientific data that could lead to discoveries about the origins of the sun and the planets.
That is the latest triumph in a journey that started in 2006, when the spacecraft launched on a mission to explore Pluto. Thirteen years and more than 4 billion miles later, New Horizons has provided humanity s first glimpse of a distant fragment that could be unchanged from the solar system s earliest days. Ultima Thule, the name that the mission team selected for the object from more than 34,000 suggestions from the public, means “beyond the borders of the known world.”
During the flyby, at a distance of about 2,200 miles, the spacecraft was out of communication with Earth because it was busy making scientific observations. Only hours later did New Horizons turn its antenna toward home. Then, it sent a 15-minute update, confirming it had survived the flyby. The message took six hours to travel the 4.1 billion miles at the speed of light to Earth. Future transmissions are expected to convey new pictures and readings from the flyby.
At 10:31 am, the operations centre at Johns Hopkins, which runs the mission for NASA, confirmed that a radio dish in Madrid, part of NASA s Deep Space Network, had locked in to the signal from New Horizons.
“We have a healthy spacecraft,” Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager, announced following a methodical check of the spacecraft s systems. “We ve just accomplished the most distant flyby.”
Clapping and cheering erupted in the room where the mood had been quiet and nervous a few minutes earlier.
“I don t know about you, but I m really liking this 2019 thing so far,” S Alan Stern, the mission s principal investigator, said at the start of a news conference on Tuesday.