- NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past a mysterious object 4 billion miles from Earth on New Year’s Day.
- Called 2014 MU69 (and also known as Ultima Thule), it is now the most distant object humanity has ever explored.
- It may take two years for all of the flyby photos and data to make it back to Earth, but scientists will unveil the first close-up pictures on Wednesday.
- NASA TV and Johns Hopkins University will host a live video broadcast showing the first images at 2 p.m. EST.
Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, scientists flew a NASA spacecraft past the most distant object humanity has ever dared to explore.
On Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST, the space agency plans to unveil the first photos taken by the nuclear-powered New Horizons probe – and anyone can watch live via NASA TV. (The video feed is embedded at the end of this post.)
The mysterious, distant object is known formally as 2014 MU69, though more frequently called “Ultima Thule.” (It’s a controversial nickname – see editor’s note below). Researchers are just now seeing what the space rock looks like for the first time, since it’s 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. At 20 miles across, or roughly the size of a mountain, it is much too small and too far for telescopes to see clearly.
“We’re here to tell you that last night, overnight, the United States spacecraft New Horizons conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, and did so spectacularly,” Alan Stern, who leads the New Horizons mission, said during a press conference on Tuesday after the flyby. “Thousands of operations onboard the spacecraft had to work correctly in order for us to be able to tell you this, and now we know that it all did.”
MU69 is thought to be a pristine remnant of the solar system’s formation, meaning that photographing and studying it up close with New Horizons could help scientists learn about how planets are built and evolve.
In what Stern previously called a “mind-boggling” manoeuvre, New Horizons flew past MU69 at 12:33 a.m. ET on Tuesday. The probe moved at about 32,200 mph and came within 2,200 miles of the object. Stern told Business Insider this feat was “10,000 times harder than reaching Pluto,” which the probe did in July 2015.
As New Horizons got close to MY69, it took hundreds of photographs and measurements in a highly coordinated sequence. The first image data reached Earth late on Tuesday night, though it took researchers some time to process the footage, study it, and prepare for an upcoming press briefing.
“Well have the first close-ups today at 2 p.m.,” Michael Buckley, a representative for Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which manages the New Horizons mission for NASA, told Business Insider on Wednesday.
The spacecraft is beaming back images despite many physical limitations: it launched in 2006 so is using dated electronics, is located 4 billion miles away from Earth, and has an antenna output as weak as an LED light bulb. That means it may take up to two years for New Horizons to send all of its flyby data back to Earth.
How to see the first images of MU69
The Applied Physics Laboratory is hosting a series of live video broadcasts about New Horizons’ flyby.
The segments are being streamed via the laboratory’s YouTube channel through Thursday.NASA Live and NASA TV are also broadcasting the segments despite the government shutdown, which President Donald Trump started over funding for a wall along the US-Mexico border.
“NASA will continue to stun the world with its achievements!” Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of NASA, tweeted on December 27 while announcing that NASA TV would stay on the air.
The first Ultima Thule broadcast aired Monday, and showed a press conference with Stern and other mission scientists. Then at 12:02 a.m. Tuesday, Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May released a song dedicated to the mission. At 12:33 a.m. – the moment New Horizons zoomed past MU69 – the live broadcast showed scientists celebrating.
The first images will be unveiled during briefings on Wednesday at 2 p.m. and again on Thursday at 2 p.m.
You can watch the main New Horizons events via the NASA Live video player embedded below.
If you wish to see all the Applied Physics Laboratory’s coverage, tune into its YouTube channel for the latest live broadcasts.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on December 31, 2018.
Editor’s note: After a public campaign, the New Horizons team selected Ultima Thule as a nickname for (486958) 2014 MU69. However, we’ve de-emphasised it here because the Nazi party used the word “Thule” as a tenet of its ideology.