NASA’s New Horizons on New Years Day did a historic flyby of the farthest cosmic body ever explored by humankind-a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule, in the hopes of learning more about how planets took shape.
“Go New Horizons!” said lead scientist Alan Stern as a crowd including kids dressed in space costumes blew party horns and cheered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to mark the moment at 12:33 am (0533 GMT) when the New Horizons spacecraft aimed its cameras at the space rock four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt.
Offering scientists the first up-close look at an ancient building block of planets, the flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.
Real-time video of the actual flyby was impossible. The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (1445 GMT), letting NASA know if New Horizons survived the risky, high-speed encounter.
Ultima Thule is unique because it is a relic from the early days of the solar system and could provide answers about the origins of other planets.
Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like; whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster.
It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, and is believed to be 12-20 miles in size.
A blurred and pixelated image released Monday, taken from 1.2 million miles away, has intrigued scientists because it appears to show an elongated blob, not a round space rock.