Washington: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on Tuesday zipped past an ancient Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule, setting the record for flyby of the most distant planetary object in history.
“Confirmed! @NASANewHorizons flew by the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted on Tuesday after NASA received signal from the spacecraft.
New Horizons also became the first to directly explore an object that holds remnants from the birth of our solar system, Bridenstine added.
Located 6.5 billion kilometres from Earth, Ultima Thule means “beyond the known world”.
The New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule could help scientists better understand what conditions were like when our solar system formed billions of years ago.
Ultima Thule is orbiting in the heart of our solar system’s Kuiper Belt, far beyond Neptune, according to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The Kuiper Belt — a collection of icy bodies ranging in size from dwarf planets like Pluto to smaller planetesimals like Ultima Thule and even smaller bodies like comets — are believed to be the building blocks of planets.
Ultima’s nearly circular orbit indicates it originated at its current distance from the Sun.
Scientists find its birthplace important for two reasons. First, because that means Ultima is an ancient sample of this distant portion of the solar system.
Second, because temperatures this far from the Sun are barely above absolute zero — mummifying temperatures that preserves Kuiper Belt objects – they are essentially time capsules of the ancient past.
Marc Buie, New Horizons co-investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and members of the New Horizons science team discovered Ultima using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.
New Horizons’ extended mission also includes observations of more than two-dozen other Kuiper Belt objects, as well as measurements of the plasma, gas and dust environment of the Kuiper Belt.