NASA probe believed to have passed distant space rock on landmark mission ,
The body is farther from Earth than any other that has had such a close encounter with a NASA probe, scientists believe.
The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the “third zone” in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12:33 a.m.
Eastern. Scientists will not have confirmation of its successful arrival until the probe communicates its whereabouts
through NASA‘s Deep Space Network at 10:28 a.m. Eastern, about 10 hours later. Once it enters the peripheral layer of the belt, containing icy bodies and leftover fragments from the solar system’s creation,
the probe will get its first close-up glance of Ultima Thule, a cool mass shaped like a giant peanut, using seven on-board instruments. New Horizons embarked on a 4 billion mile journey toward the solar system’s frigid edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons.
Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched, according to NASA, making the mission unique in that respect. In 2014, astronomers found Thule using the Hubble Space Telescope and selected it for New Horizon’s extended mission in 2015.
In March, it revealed that methane-rich dunes were on the icy dwarf planet’s surface.
During a 2015 fly-by, the probe found Pluto to be slightly larger than previously thought , As the probe flies 2,200
miles (3,500 km) above Thule’s surface, scientists hope it will detect the chemical composition of its atmosphere and
terrain in what NASA says will be the closest observation of a body so remote.
While the mission marks the farthest close-encounter of an object within our solar system, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2,
a pair of deep space probes launched in 1977, have reached greater distances on a mission to survey extrasolar
bodies. Both probes are still operational.