LAUREL, Md. – Only minutes into the New Year, a team of scientists and experts at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory celebrated more than just the turn of the calendar. The occasion was marked by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft approach the small, icy world known as Ultima Thule (pronounced “TOO-lee”) – a term once used by the ancients to describe semi-mythical lands in the North Atlantic Ocean but, strictly, meaning “beyond the borders of the known world.”
Several hours after the festivities began, the New Horizons team received confirmation that the craft had accomplished the current stage of its mission, positioning itself to transmit images of Ultima Thule and other scientific data. The purpose: to help us to better understand the origins of the sun and planets.
During the initial flyby, the craft covered a distance of approximately 2,200 miles, disappearing briefly and dropping out of communication with Earth while it gathered its first observations. New Horizons then emerged to report it has survived the flyby. The message, traveling at the speed of light over 4.1 billion miles, was received on Earth approximately 6 hours after transmission.
The remaining data to be gathered by New Horizons is expected to arrive in pieces over the course of almost two years.
In addition to receiving the data from New Horizons, celebrants in the lab were also pleased to hear the debut recording of music created by Brian May, former lead guitarist for the band Queen who went on to become an astrophysicist on the New Horizon’s mission team.