NASA confirms that it has managed to fly the New Horizons, a nuclear-powered space probe, beyond a mysterious mountain-sized rock well beyond the orbit of Pluto. The rock is referred to as Ultima Thule in the science community. It’s estimated to be about 4 billion miles away from Earth and 1 billion miles away from Pluto. New Horizons is in a deep space mission and it actually visited Pluto in 2015.
NASA said that this is the first time a space probe has done this kind of maneuver. The space agency also noted that there was no damage caused during the movement. Ultima Thule, thanks to this excavation, is now the most distant object ever visited by humans in history. NASA said that the probe took a number of quick choreographed pictures of the rock. In fact, it was about 2,200 miles away from the object when the pictures were taken. The probe was doing 3,200 miles per second at the time.
A lot of scientists say that the mission was surprising and also ambitious. When the New Horizons space probe was launched back in 2006, we didn’t even know the existence of Ultima Thule. NASA didn’t have any reliable technology that could be used to detect the object. It wasn’t until 2009 that astronauts were able to identify the object. But even then, the maneuver by the New Horizons to get so close to the rock wasn’t easy. Some scientists believe that the maneuver was, in fact, harder than flying by to Pluto.
NASA says that the probe went beyond its capabilities on this one and it’s great to see that it was able to come out just fine. The first images taken by the Probe are expected to arrive back on Earth in a day or two. Scientists believe that the information from these pictures could help make future missions to Ultima Thule easier and much more controlled. New Horizon was the first-ever probe to visit Pluto in 2015 too. This was one of the most historic space missions ever. The triumph inspired NASA to start exploring around the distant planet and a mission to Ultima Thule was conceived. It seems the space agency has finally managed to get there.
Scientists and even members of the public will be waiting with anticipation for the first few pictures of the rock. NASA said that the photos will be released on Wednesday. But high resolution and detailed photos that offer more information will take longer. The earliest estimate according to the space agency is February. Researchers will also need time to make sense of the images. Normally, this can take two years.
NASA and other private companies have been spearheading efforts to explore the solar system. Space probes have been sent far away into space over the years but the New Horizons probe has set a new standard. It will be interesting to know what aquanauts will learn from the pictures sent back by the probe but for now, many scientists are calling this a huge achievement.