January 6, 2019

USA: On New Year's Day, A NASA Spacecraft Flew ONE BILLION MILES Past Pluto, The Most Distant World Ever Studied By Humankind, Sparking Celebrations From Scientists. 😊💖👍

Sky News
written by Connor Sephton, news reporter
Tuesday January 1, 2019

A NASA spacecraft has flown past the most distant world ever studied by humankind - sparking jubilant celebrations from scientists.

The New Horizons spacecraft paid a visit to the tiny, icy world of Ultima Thule, which lies one billion miles beyond Pluto, in the early hours of New Year's Day.

Roughly 20 miles long and shaped like a giant peanut, the mysterious object lies four billion miles from Earth.

It will take an estimated 10 hours for flight controllers to find out whether the spacecraft has survived the close encounter - and will find out if the pass was successful at about 3pm UK time.

Clear images of the cosmic body are expected to emerge in the coming days.

As crowds cheered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, the mission's lead scientist Alan Stern said: "Go New Horizons! Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away."

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

The spacecraft was aiming to collect about 900 images in a matter of seconds as it travelled past from a distance of approximately 2,000 miles.

Prior to the flypast, Mr Stern had said: "[Ultima Thule] is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation.

"Everything we are going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things - are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system."

The milestone comes hours after a different NASA spacecraft broke records by successfully going into orbit around an ancient asteroid.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft is now orbiting Bennu - a tiny asteroid that is just 500m (1,600ft) long and found 70 million miles from Earth.

Bennu is the smallest celestial body to ever be orbited by a spacecraft, and Osiris-Rex's laps are barely one mile above the asteroid's surface.

NASA says the spacecraft's objective is to grab samples of gravel from the asteroid in 2020 and return them to Earth by 2023 - a manoeuvre described as a "gentle high-five".

The $800 million unmanned spaceship launched two years ago from Cape Canaveral in Florida - arriving at its destination on 3 December.

After closely studying the asteroid for several weeks, Osiris-Rex fired its thrusters to bring it into orbit around Bennu at 7.43pm UK time on New Year's Eve.

Dante Lauretta, Osiris-Rex's principal investigator, said: "Entering orbit around Bennu is an amazing accomplishment that our team has been planning for years."

NASA has described the achievement as a "leap for humankind" because no spacecraft has ever "circled so close to such a small space object - one with barely enough gravity to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit".

Bennu has a gravity force that is just five-millionths as strong as Earth's.

From now until mid-February, Osiris-Rex will use a suite of five scientific instruments to map Bennu in high resolution, enabling scientists to decide where to take the sample.

A reverse vacuum and a circular device, not dissimilar from a car's filter, will then be used to collect about 60g of material.

Bennu is also regarded as potentially dangerous, as there is a one in 2,700 chance of the asteroid colliding with Earth in 2135.

It is one of the oldest asteroids known to NASA, and scientists hope it will reveal more about the early formation of the solar system.

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