NASA has revealed that its New Horizons spacecraft is now heading towards more distant bodies in the Kuiper Belt to hunt for more clues about the origins of our Solar System.
NASA said that New Horizons is now traveling deep into the Kuiper Belt with the agenda of finding small, icy moons that spun off the snowman-shaped Ultima Thule formation, a pair of icy space rocks that fused in orbit billions of years ago.
The piano sized probe from NASA become the first spacecraft to make the first most distant flyby ever. New Horizons on New Year’s day came within 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of Ultima Thule that scientists claim was formed during the birth of the solar system. The fly-by marked the farthest close encounter of an object within our solar system. Since then, the probe has sent images revealing Ultima Thule to be a “contact binary” – two bodies that formed separately and then got stuck together. The formation, resembling a red-hued snowman – caused by irradiated ice – is just over 21 miles (34 km) long.
Scientists have deduced that Ultima Thule is actually made up of two conjoined bodies – one named Ultima and the other Thule – which were once part of a cloud of smaller, rotating space rocks that eventually bound together into two larger bodies orbiting at a much slower speed.
New Horizons is now 3 million miles (5 million km) beyond Ultima Thule. The spacecraft will continue sending more data over the next few weeks giving more insights into what Ultima Thule is like Since its launch in 2006, New Horizons has traveled 4 billion miles (6.4 billion km) to the solar system’s edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto, its five moons and hundreds of icy Kuiper Belt objects.
Another point to note about the flyby is that scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched. The mission is unique in that way because the flyby was planned after the spacecraft was already on its mission to examine other bodies in our Solar System.