NASA's New Horizons spacecraft successfully captured images and data as it flew past a distant object nicknamed Ultima Thule early Tuesday morning, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory confirmed later in the day.
But New Horizons won't give humans their first close-up glimpse of the previously unexplored edge of the solar system until Wednesday afternoon.
“This mission’s always been about delayed gratification,” the mission’s principal investigator Alan Stern said in a briefing Tuesday at the Laurel lab.
The scientists received a flurry of messages from the spacecraft at 10:29 a.m., revealing that it was still in one piece and had collected the amount and type of data they had expected as it zipped past Ultima Thule 10 hours earlier.
Though it will take months for the spacecraft to beam all that information back to Earth, it was nonetheless a “thrill,” said Chris Hersman, the mission systems engineer.
Awaiting the first signal from the spacecraft, which takes more than 6 hours at the speed of light to reach Earth, the scientists gathered in the mission operations center. Hersman said he kept his eyes on his colleague in charge of radio communications with New Horizons.
“As soon as he started smiling, we knew things were going well,” Hersman said. “It was an amazing experience.”
New Horizons launched 13 years ago, bound for Pluto, which it reached in July 2015. After that, scientists set their sights on Ultima Thule, officially known as 2014 MU69. The mission was designed and is managed for NASA by a team based at the Johns Hopkins lab.
Both Pluto and Ultima Thule are in an area known as the Kuiper Belt, billions of miles from Earth. New Horizons observed both while speeding past at more than 30,000 miles per hour, following in the footsteps of the Voyager and Pioneer missions launched in the 1970s. But while those missions gathered relatively crude detections of particles and plasma in the outer solar system, New Horizons is the first to capture high-resolution images of Kuiper Belt objects and reveal in detail what they’re made of.
Images captured by New Horizons and sent back to Earth just before its closest approach to Ultima Thule showed it to be a bowling pin-shaped object, or possibly pair of objects, as scientists had predicted. And it is spinning in space like the blade on a propeller plane, they said.
As they awaited more detailed data, New Horizons scientists were set to meet late into Tuesday night and release new findings and the first close-up images of Ultima Thule by Wednesday afternoon. It takes more than 6 hours for messages and data to be relayed to and from the baby grand piano-sized spacecraft, now more than 4 billion miles from Earth.
The researchers expect to begin writing their first scientific paper next week based on the Ultima Thule fly-by. They won’t be able to communicate with New Horizons for a few days starting this weekend because the sun will be between it and Earth, but they plan to continue downloading data from the spacecraft by the middle of the month. Its most detailed images of Ultima Thule are expected to arrive on Earth in February.
On Tuesday, the scientists just took a moment to celebrate, and marvel at their accomplishments.