NASA kicked off the new year with a midnight flyby of the most distant Solar System object ever visited by a manmade spacecraft. New Horizons passed within a few thousand miles of the oblong space rock known as Ultima Thule just after the calendar page turned to 2019 on the East Coast, and it’s a huge achievement for the space agency and astronomy community in general.
Unfortunately, NASA has very little to show for its accomplishment, at least right now.
NASA’s live stream of the event was very informative, providing details about the mission and animations to show where the spacecraft was in relation to Ultima Thule. We did not, however, get a good look at Ultima Thule itself or even confirmation that the mission was a success, so now we wait.
Our Solar System is a big place, and Ultima Thule is very far away. A live stream or even the rapid delivery of still images from the spacecraft wasn’t a realistic expectation and, as NASA has already explained, it’s going to take months for the probe to send back all the information it gathered during its brief rendezvous with its rocky target.
In fact, retrieving information from New Horizons is so delayed that even NASA doesn’t know with certainty that the spacecraft pulled off its mission without a hitch. NASA’s Deep Space Network is still relaying that information back to Earth, and it’s expected to arrive by midday.
NASA already has a number of press conferences scheduled for the coming days, and we’re sure to learn a lot about how well New Horizons performed and, hopefully, some new information about Ultima Thule as well. However, the real science can’t begin until the probe delivers all the data it’s gathered, and that could take months.