NASA spacecraft zips by most distant world ever studied

Alice Bowman and Alan Stern

NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW

Researchers are interested in small objects in the far reaches of the solar system, asteroids and comets, because they could contain clues to the solar systems origin story.

Ultima Thule as an elongated blob. The position was refined by a series of so-called stellar occultations, as the object passed in front of a distant star as viewed by NASA-sponsored expeditions to Argentina, South Africa and Senegal.

New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule 3 ½ years after its spectacular brush with Pluto.

This flyby, which is taking place deep in the solar system, is a major milestone for New Horizons.

He took a breath.

"Who knows what we might find?".

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"As you celebrate New Year´s Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the awesome things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it".

The New Horizons spacecraft accomplished its primary mission on July 14, 2015, when it performed the first close encounter of Pluto.

The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (1445 GMT).

NASA's vaunted social media operation, which had fallen silent during the partial government shutdown, has been temporarily restored to cover the event. The flyby will be covered on the lab's website, its YouTube channel and NASA TV. The New York Times has a nice collection of pictures taken of Ultima Thule as New Horizons approached. "It's a very special region that we're very excited to explore".

The nerdiest New Year's party in the solar system is happening 4billion miles from Earth, where a lone, intrepid explorer is en route to the furthest object humans have ever explored.

Ultima Thule is what's known as a "cold classical Kuiper belt object".

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But eventually the science team expects to get detailed pictures - plus temperature readings, spectral analyses and particle counts - from a world that's thought to rank among the most primitive types of objects in the solar system.

These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years. Before, they saw it as only a single pixel. As a result, Ultima Thule wasn't even discovered until 2014.

Just like there is an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where there are bands of rocky/icy objects orbiting the Sun, there is a similar (but far wider) band of (generally) larger objects out beyond Neptune.

At 10:28 am EST today, New Horizons made its pre-programed "phone home", letting the mission team back on Earth know that the craft completed the flyby unharmed. In addition to the webcast, Alan Stern and the rest of the New Horizons mission team continues to answer questions from the public in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) forum.

New Horizons flew three times closer to Ultima than it did by Pluto, coming within 2,200 miles of it and providing a better look at the surface.

"This really just starts with the downlink and transmissions that begin tomorrow, and will last for a year-and-a-half", he said. Measurements taken Saturday showed that the spacecraft was within 20 miles of its intended flyby distance from Ultima Thule, and that the timing of the encounter will be within 2 seconds of what was expected.

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For that reason, Stern said he and his colleagues were "on pins and needles to see how this turns out". "You can't get any better than that".

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