Mission scientists from NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have confirmed that the New Horizons spacecraft conducted a flyby of Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object that's a billion miles beyond Pluto.
Next steps: The observation of the mysterious object comes 3.5 years after New Horizons gave us our best ever look at Pluto and 12 years since New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral.
In an incredible world-first, NASA has released an image from a historic flyby of Ultima Thule, a bowling pin-shaped celestial object at the edge of our solar system some 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away.
At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons' high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule's size and shape so far.
Though the closest point of the flyby, only 2,200 miles above Ultima Thule's surface, occurred just after midnight, the spacecraft was pointed at the object for a few more hours with its antenna, rigidly locked to the spacecraft body, pointing away from Earth.
New Horizons launched in 2006 on a mission to explore Pluto, which it achieved in 2015. The NASA team (led by Alan Stern, pictured celebrating its success above) only had one shot at getting close enough to the rock as New Horizons is whipping past at 31,5000 miles per hour.
The small body is known as a "cold classical" Kuiper Belt object, or KBO, meaning it is a pristine sample of that original material, circling the sun in a circular, flat orbit that indicates it has not been jostled or otherwise disturbed since the solar system's birth.
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More images and data will start arriving later Tuesday, offering scientists the first up-close look at an ancient building block of planets, Bowman said. 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.
Dr. Stern added that while this week's images should be a dramatic improvement over what is now known about the Kuiper Belt, scientists will not have their best views downloaded until February.
Since then, over a decade's worth of scientific advancements has helped us to learn more about the Kuiper Belt and the odd worlds that might inhabit it, but there's no denying that this first up-close brush with an actual Kuiper Belt Object is an unprecedented accomplishment. So they had to wait until late morning before learning whether the spacecraft survived. However, there is also a chance that Ultima Thule is two objects in orbit around each other.
The New Horizons mission was extended in 2016 to visit this Kuiper Belt object.
Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA.
Cheers erupted at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, home to mission control. Ultima Thule measures approximately 30 km in diameter, and is irregularly shaped.
"Everything we are going to learn about Ultima - from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things - are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system". He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto.