WASHINGTON – NASA’s New Horizons space probe made a successfully flyby on Tuesday of Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited to date by human instruments, a huge asteroid located in the Kuiper Belt some 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) from the Sun.
“Confirmed! @NASANewHorizons flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft. Congratulations to the New Horizons team, @JHUAPL and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again!” said NASA chief Jim Bridenstine on the US space agency’s official Twitter account.
Bridenstine’s congratulations were directed at NASA, along with its collaborators for the mission, Johns Hopkins University and the Southwest Research Institute.
Ultima Thule, which was the name selected by the public in a NASA contest to name the object known up to that time as 2014 MU69, comes from a Greek term used by Roman and Medieval geographers to indicate areas “located beyond the known world.”
The New Horizons unmanned spacecraft, which rendezvoused with Pluto in 2015, will take high-resolution photos of Ultima Thule for 72 hours from a distance of about 3,500 kilometers (2,170 miles) with the aim of recording its surface and composition, determining if it has an atmosphere and detecting other celestial bodies orbiting around it, NASA said.
In addition, scientists intend to determine if Ultima Thule – which is as least 30 kilometers (19 miles) in diameter – is a single celestial object or two (or more) stuck together by their mutual gravitational attraction.
Ultima Thule orbits the Sun in the Kuiper Belt, a distant region of icy and rocky bodies named in honor of the astronomer who predicted its existence during the 1950s, Gerard Kuiper.
New Horizons was launched in 2016 and – after making its flyby of Pluto – was in hibernation until June 2018, when it “woke up” and resumed transmissions as it approached Ultima Thule.
Scientists and astronomers involved with the mission hope that the information collected by New Horizons will help them to better understand the formation of the Solar System and its planets.