Live Updates On The New Horizons Flyby Of Ultima Thule

Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute

Well Mark... NASA scientists confirmed on New Year's Day that the New Horizons spacecraft made contact with Earth to confirm its successful flyby of Ultima Thule.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft notched a second triumph in its belt, passing close by a second object two-and-a-half years since it passed Pluto.

Scientists say it will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its observations of Ultima Thule, a full 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto.

Scientists say there are two possibilities for this: Ultima Thule is either one object with two connected lobes, sort of like a spinning bowling pin or peanut still in the shell, or two objects orbiting surprisingly close to one another.

But despite the festive atmosphere - which included the release of a New Horizons song recorded by contributing scientist and rock guitarist Brian May of Queen, who was on hand for the event - the mission team had no way of knowing if their spacecraft was still in one piece and executing its reconnaissance of Ultima Thule.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back its treasure trove of data, a process expected to last nearly two years.

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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 revellers watched fireworks exploding in the night sky, billions of kilometres beyond the spectacle, NASA's New Horizons probe quietly notched up another unbelievable first - making its closest approach to the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

Previously, New Horizons swooped by Pluto in 2015, capturing the icy, mountainous world in unprecedented detail.

"What we'll very soon learn about this primordial building block of our solar system will exponentially expand our knowledge of this relatively unknown third region of space", said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.

Ultima Thule-which was first discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in June 2014-lies in a disc of small bodies which circle the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune, known as the Kuiper belt. "From here out the data will just get better and better!" Tonight, some billion miles later, it will encounter a pristine world known as 2014 MU69, dubbed Ultima Thule (pronounced "ultima too-lee").

A blurry image taken by New Horizons on its approach on Monday was shown during the news conference.

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Project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said humans didn't even know the Kuiper Belt - a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system - existed until the 1990s.

"We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed - we think".

The New Horizons mission was extended in 2016 to visit this Kuiper Belt object. Ultima Thule measures approximately 30 km in diameter, and is irregularly shaped.

Just 33 minutes into the new year local time, New Horizon's will swoop some 2,200 miles above Ultima, capturing detailed snapshots of the uncharted world.

Bowman takes comfort and pleasure in knowing that long after New Horizons stops working, it "will keep going on and on".

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

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That better data won't take long to start turning up.

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