Nasa rings in New Year with historic flyby of faraway world

Nasa rings in New Year with historic flyby of faraway world

The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto hurtled toward a New Year's Day rendezvous with a tiny, icy world a billion miles farther out, in what would make it the most distant cosmic body ever explored by humankind.

Scientists made a decision to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet.

Its New Horizons spacecraft has survived the most distant exploration of another world - a tiny, icy object almost six and a half billion kilometers away from Earth.

Scientists did not want to interrupt observations as New Horizons swept past Ultima Thule - described as a bullet intersecting with another bullet - so they delayed radio transmissions.

As New Horizons made its close approach to Ultima Thule, it beamed science data back to Earth, as well as information indicating that it was operating smoothly.

The spacecraft will ping back more detailed images and data from Thule in the coming days, NASA said.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern gives a high five too New Horizons Mission Operation Alice Bowman. The 10-hour lag had been a tense wait for some of the team, fretful that their weeks-long search for hazards around MU69 (or "Ultima Thule", its nickname), such as fugitive moons or rings, had missed something before the spacecraft sped past at a distance of some 3,500 kilometers. Before exploring the edge of the solar system, the spacecraft was the first to capture Pluto. Scientists hope to learn about those origins through New Horizons' observations deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt, or frozen Twilight Zone, on the fringes of the solar system. Scientists will not have confirmation of its successful arrival until the probe communicates its whereabouts through NASA's Deep Space Network at 10.28am Eastern, about 10 hours later. "From here out the data will just get better and better!" Ultima Thule is about 44 AU from the Sun on average, or roughly 4 billion miles from Earth.

It is the farthest away from the Sun any spacecraft has ever investigated an object, with New Horizons taking over 13 years to reach the rock.

The news was greeted with cheers by officials and onlookers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, home to Mission Control. An answer should be forthcoming Wednesday, once new and better pictures arrive.

Initial flyby data has also revealed our first discovery about Ultima Thule, showing that it is spinning like a propeller, with its axis pointing approximately towards New Horizons. Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014.

Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.

New Horizons examined Pluto when it flew past the dwarf-planet three years ago.

Stephen Gwyn, an astronomer and data specialist with Canada's National Research Council who is participating in the mission, said the image has already solved one mystery: how the oblong-shaped Ultima Thule can rotate without changing its brightness.

'I was inspired by the idea that this is the furthest that the Hand of Man has ever reached - it will be by far the most distant object we have ever seen at close quarters, through the images which the space craft will beam back to Earth. The mission was launched in 2006 and took a 9½-year journey through space before reaching Pluto.

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