Extending its mission well past 2015’s groundbreaking exploration of Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft made a close pass on New Year’s Day with the distant trans-Neptunian object (486958) 2014 MU69, better known by its nickname, Ultima Thule. This event is not only a great start to the New Year for NASA, it also sets a new record for the farthest object in the Solar System visited by a spacecraft.
"We set a record. Never before has a spacecraft explored anything so far away," said the project’s lead scientist Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute. New Horizons made its closest approach to Ultima Thule shortly after midnight on January 1. "Think of it. We’re a billion miles farther than Pluto."
Discovered in June of 2014, Ultima Thule resides 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) from the Sun, and 1.6 billion kilometers (1 billion miles) past Pluto. New Horizons is now so far into deep space that the time it takes for its radio transmissions to reach Earth is a little over six hours, and the bandwidth over that distance is stretched so thin that NASA expects that it will take the probe nearly two years to transmit all of the data it’s collected on Ultima Thule back to us.
But the images already received by NASA are quite tantalizing: (486958) 2014 MU69 appears to be an elongated object approximately 32 kilometers (19.9 miles) long, and seems to be roughly twice as long as it is wide. This isn’t quite as stretched out as interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua’s ten-to-one ratio, but it is likely also red in color as well, the result of eons of being bombarded with cosmic radiation.
Astrophysicist and New Horizons team member and Brian May — of whom is probably better known as the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen — delivered a speech regarding the accomplishment made by the New Horizons team, and to debut his new song celebrating the event.
"We will never forget this moment," said May, who led the new year countdown. "This is completely unknown territory."