“New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system. We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time,” said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team lead. “Studying Ultima Thule is helping us understand how planets form — both those in our own solar system and those orbiting other stars in our galaxy.”
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is sending back images of Pluto taken during its Tuesday morning flyby. The images reveal a varied surface with ice mountains and frozen plains. The piano-size spacecraft traveled nine years and three billion miles to study the dwarf planet and its five moons.
The vast distance to Pluto – some 4.7bn km – means bit rates are extremely slow, and it will take a full 16 months for everything seen in the next few days to trickle back to Earth.
Closest approach to Pluto on Tuesday is set for exactly 11:49:59 GMT (12:49:59 BST; 07:49:59 EDT).
Preparations are ongoing to resume the originally planned science operations on July 7 and to conduct the entire close flyby sequence as planned. The mission science team and principal investigator have concluded that the science observations lost during the anomaly recovery do not affect any primary objectives of the mission, with a minimal effect on lesser objectives.
New Horizons is now so far away that radio signals traveling at the speed of light take four hours and 25 minutes to reach Earth.
The scientific observation of Pluto, its entourage of moons and other bodies in the solar system’s frozen backyard begins Jan. 15, program managers said. The closest approach is expected on July 14.