New Horizons successfully flew past Ultima Thule and sent back images

NASA has announced that the New Horizons spacecraft has successfully flown past Ultima Thule. The flyby marks the most distant target reached by spacecraft in history. NASA says that the flyby also ushers in an era of exploring the Kuiper Belt region that science believes holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system.

NASA says that signals have confirmed that the spacecraft is healthy and has digital recorders filled with science data on Ultima Thule. Some of that data, including images, reached the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory on January 1 at 10:29 a.m. EST. That is about ten hours after the spacecraft made its closest approach to Ultima Thule.

Images taken by the spacecraft show that Ultima Thule has a shape similar to a bowling pin and that it spins end over end. Dimensions of the target are approximately 20 by 10 miles. Scientists maintain that Ultima Thule could be two objects orbiting each other. One mystery that has been solved is why its brightness didn't vary as the object rotated.

That lack of change in brightness was discovered last month ahead of the flyby and had scientists curious. The New Horizons team says that data gathered shows that Ultima Thule is spinning like a propeller and its axis is pointing approximately towards New Horizons explaining why its brightness didn't vary in early observations.

The New Horizons team is still trying to determine the rotation period of Ultima Thule. The spacecraft gleaned so much data from its flyby of Ultima Thule that the team says images and data will arrive in the days and months ahead with all science data being received over the next 20 months. New Horizons will continue to explore the Kuiper Belt until at least 2021.