At mission control in John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, the New Horizons team has been using the spacecraft's cameras to snap new pictures of Ultima Thule on approach. But because Ultima is so far away, these rich images won't be immediately available. Measurements taken Saturday showed that the spacecraft was within 20 miles of its intended flyby distance from Ultima Thule, and that the timing of the encounter will be within 2 seconds of what was expected.
"Now it is just a matter of time to see the data coming down", said deputy project scientist John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute.
After trekking 1 billion miles beyond Pluto into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will now seek clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets.
Hal Weaver, a project scientist on the mission and a professor at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University explained what we already know about Ultima Thule.
The latest image of Ultima Thule from New Horizons, taken on December 30, 2018, when the spacecraft was at a distance of 1.9 million kilometres.
Scientists say Ultimate Thule shouldn't contain rings or moons that would damage New Horizons.
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Ultima Thule (officially 2014 MU69) is believed to be a pristine remnant of the birth of the solar system.
As for the "cold, classical" part, Ultima Thule's orbit has a very low "inclination", meaning that it travels around the Sun in roughly the same plane as all the planets (except Pluto), and its orbit is almost circular (unlike Pluto).
It was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Nasa made history early this morning during a close encounter with a tiny and enigmatic "minor planet" lurking at the frozen far reaches of our solar system.
Seven instruments on board will record high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition.
New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million USA mission, was expected to hurtle to within 3,500 km of Ultima Thule, considerably closer than the Pluto encounter of 2015.
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"This is the frontier of planetary science", said Weaver.
But New Horizons' performance so far suggests it is ready for the challenge, Stern said.
"We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed - we think".
The twin planetary feats coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when U.S. astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8 in December, 1968.
"Who knows what we might find?".
From its brightness and size, New Horizons team members calculated its reflectivity, which is only about 10%, or about as dark as garden dirt.
"We set a record!"
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Both probes are still operational.