NASA spacecraft zips by most distant world ever studied

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NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has made a trek to the far reaches of our solar system, zooming past icy Ultima Thule at 32,000 miles per hour in the early hours of New Year's Day.

If New Horizons successfully completes this flyby, the encounter may tell us invaluable information about Kuiper Belt Objects like Ultima Thule.

The NASA spacecraft that yielded the first close-up views of Pluto opened the new year at an even more distant world.

The crowd ushered in 2019 at midnight, then cheered again 33 minutes later, the appointed time for New Horizons' closest approach to Ultima Thule.

At 11:30 a.m., scientists involved with the New Horizons mission released the first images and data returned by the spacecraft. 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 made a decision to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which was launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet.

EVER, " tweeted the project's lead scientist, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.

Another NASA spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, also set a new record on Monday by entering orbit around the asteroid Bennu, the smallest cosmic object - about 500 metres in diameter - ever circled by a spacecraft.

Cheers erupted at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to Mission Control, as mission operations manager Alice Bowman declared: "We have a healthy spacecraft".

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Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule looks like, whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster. Owing to the probe's great distance from Earth and the relative weakness of its signal, it took several hours for scientists to receive and process the image. Scientists say it will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its observations of Ultima Thule, a full billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

The object is so far away that it takes more than six hours for a command sent from Earth to reach New Horizons.

Brian May, the guitarist for the legendary rock band Queen and an astrophysicist, is also a participating scientist in the New Horizons mission.

New Horizons, which is the size of a baby grand piano and part of an $800 million United States mission, was expected to hurtle to within 3,500 km of Ultima Thule, considerably closer than the Pluto encounter of 2015. "So stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons".

The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises.

Ultima Thule, or 2014 MU69, lies beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto, in the outer realms of the solar system.

"The data we have look fantastic, and we're already learning about Ultima from up close", Stern said.

To the ancient Roman and Greeks, Ultima Thule was originally the most northerly part of the Earth, but the name was used to refer to anywhere which was outside the known world. "From here out, the data will just get better and better".

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