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Guests cheer as the New Horizons team members receive signals from the spacecraft that it is healthy. In the meantime, they have released the closest image taken of Ultima just before the flyby.

"Ultima is 100 times smaller than Pluto, but its scientific value is incalculable". Before, they saw it as only a single pixel. "Anything's possible out there in this very unknown region", said John Spencer, a deputy project scientist from Southwest Research Institute.

That new data should help clear up some outstanding questions scientists still have about this distant object - including whether that bowling pin shape actually masks two closely co-orbiting objects (not one integrated mass), and how long it takes the spinning object to complete a rotation. Its size is estimated at 35 kilometers long by 15 kilometers wide. But the hundreds of spectators went wild nonetheless when the good news came in.

"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".

Dr. Stern added that while this week's images should be a dramatic improvement over what is now known about the Kuiper Belt, scientists will not have their best views downloaded until February. He's particularly interested in stereo imaging for this leg of the mission.

This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft.

"This mission represents to me the spirit of adventure, discovery and inquiry which is inherent in the human spirit", May said during the countdown to the flyby. Because of the government shutdown, which includes NASA, the agency's acting director of planetary science, Lori Glaze was attending as a private citizen and could not speak in her official role.

Cheers erupted at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to mission control.

Ultima Thule will therefore be the most primitive planetary object yet explored, and will reveal to us what conditions were like in this distant part of the solar system as it condensed from the solar nebula.

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Based on observations of similar-sized solar system objects, Ultima Thule will nearly certainly display impact craters.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

Engineers had to wait in nervous anticipation for hours as the signals travelled back to Earth following the flyby at 12:33 a.m.

Proposed in the early 1990s, New Horizons was launched in 2006, and in 2015 became the first spacecraft to reach Pluto.

"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

New Horizons launched almost 13 years ago as part of NASA's New Frontiers program with the foremost mission of conducting a flyby of Pluto, which occurred in 2015.

The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the "third zone" in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12.33am Eastern (1.33pm Malaysian time).

Scientists believe there should be no rings or moons around Ultima Thule that might endanger New Horizons.

We do know that Ultima Thule has a reddish colour, probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years.


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