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NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft Conducts Farthest-Ever Fly-By Of An Object

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While you were ringing in the new year, a spacecraft about the size of a grand piano made history. NASA's New Horizons passed by Ultima Thule. It's the most distant object we've ever visited, over 4 billion miles away, far enough that it took several hours for the good news to reach Mission Control this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALICE BOWMAN: In lock with telemetry.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Good day, Mission room.

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: Joining me now from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Columbia, Md., is Dr. Heidi Hammel. Welcome to the program.

HEIDI HAMMEL: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: So Ultima Thule sounds like the name of a comic book supervillain.

HAMMEL: (Laughter).

CORNISH: (Laughter) It's actually an oddly shaped icy rock. Right? It looks like a giant space peanut. Why did we want to visit this object that is billions of miles away?

HAMMEL: Well, we think that Ultima Thule is a remnant of the formation of our solar system, an object that is pristine and unprocessed. And so if we can visit this object - but we have visited - we have visited this object, and what we will learn from this is the chemical composition of the very earliest building blocks of our solar system.

CORNISH: You sound stoked, frankly.

HAMMEL: (Laughter).

CORNISH: (Laughter) And I know you're still gathering and analyzing the data. So what do you look for now as you're doing analysis?

HAMMEL: So we have only gotten the very preliminary data. Over the next weeks and months, we will be getting much higher-resolution images and color information. And that will allow us to study the properties of this object to figure out what's happening on its surface, what is its geologic structure, what is it made of exactly.

CORNISH: Now, I understand New Horizons was the same craft that took those amazingly clear pictures of Pluto back in 2015. Can we expect the same kind of high-quality images of Ultima Thule that we saw of Pluto?

HAMMEL: Now, this object, Ultima Thule, is much, much smaller than Pluto, so we don't have nearly as much data. But because it was so small, we were able to fly a little bit closer. So we will definitely get some really spectacular, beautiful images. It's going to be very interesting to see. We've never seen an object like this before, so we really have very little idea of what to expect. It's pure discovery, is what's happening here.

CORNISH: How exciting is this for someone like you who've been - who's been doing this research for so long?

HAMMEL: Oh, every spacecraft encounter we have like this is just as exciting as the previous one. I don't think we ever lose that joy, that excitement that so many people who are here have come just to be here, (laughter) to be with all of our colleagues and friends. It's almost like a grand reunion party. And we can't get enough.

It's just such a wonderful and exciting feeling to know that we and our colleagues at NASA and the Applied Physics Lab are helping to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. I mean, boy, if you could put that in a bottle and sell it, (laughter) you'd be a millionaire.

CORNISH: What a fun way to start the new year. Dr. Heidi Hammel, thank you so much.

HAMMEL: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

CORNISH: Dr. Heidi Hammel. She joined me from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Columbia, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.