The New Horizons ship of NASA has begun this year 2019 flying to the furthest region ever reached by a vehicle coming from Earth. The probe has flown early Tuesday, January 1, the most distant celestial body ever studied, baptized as Last Thule. New Horizons should now take around 900 images of this object in just a few seconds.
The New Horizons probe was programmed to reach the "third zone" in the unexplored heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12:33 a.m. East. The scientists will not have confirmation of their successful arrival until the probe communicates their whereabouts through NASA's Deep Space Network at 10:28 a.m. This, approximately 10 hours later.
Once you enter the peripheral layer of the belt, which contains frozen bodies and leftover fragments of the creation of the solar system, the probe will get its first close look at Ultima Thule.
The scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched, according to NASA, which makes the mission unique in that regard. In 2014, astronomers found Thule using the Hubble Space Telescope and selected him for the extended mission of New Horizon in 2015.
"Anything is possible out there in this unknown region," John Spencer, assistant project scientist for New Horizons, told reporters at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on a 4 billion-mile journey to the cold edge of the solar system to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.
During a flyby in 2015, the probe discovered that Pluto was a bit larger than previously thought. In March, he revealed that the methane-rich dunes were on the surface of the ice-cold dwarf planet.
After traversing 1 billion miles beyond Pluto in the Kuiper belt, New Horizons will look for clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets.
As the probe flies 2,200 miles (3,500 km) above the surface of Thule, scientists hope it will detect the chemical composition of its atmosphere and terrain in what NASA says will be the closest observation of such a remote body.
"We are strengthening the capabilities of this spacecraft, and tomorrow we will know how we did it," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern during the press conference at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. "There are no second chances for New Horizons."
While the mission marks the closest close encounter of an object within our solar system, NASA's Voyager 1 and 2, a pair of space probes launched in 1977, have reached greater distances on a mission to inspect extrasolar bodies. Both probes are still working.