NASA Tracking Flyby Of Most Distant Space Expedition In Human History

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After a journey of 13 years and 4 billion miles (6.4 billion km), NASA's New Horizons probe had a close encounter with a Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. EST (5:33 a.m. GMT) January 1, 2019, closing to a distance of about 2,200 miles (3,500 km) from the object.

New Horizons, which flew by Pluto in 2015, is now on a mission to reveal the Kuiper Belt, a region that extends well beyond the outermost planets of our solar system and is populated by tens of thousands of dark, frozen bodies more than 100 metres across, believed to be relics from the solar system's formation.

NASA is scheduled to hold a press conference at 11:30 a.m. ET.

This Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014.

"Ultima Thule remains an enigma to us, but the final countdown has begun", said New Horizons principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute.

This image made available by NASA in March 2017 shows Pluto illuminated from behind by the sun as the New Horizons spacecraft travels away from it at a distance of about 200,000 kilometres.

Scattered amongst the crowd are those who will carry on New Horizons' legacy - I've spotted team members from Nasa's Osiris-ReX spacecraft which entered orbit around the asteroid Bennu yesterday, and the leaders of upcoming missions to a odd metal asteroid called Psyche and to the trojan asteroids that share an orbit with Jupiter. New Horizons was set to take a total of 900 highest-resolution images throughout the flyby and the mission team will know in time how many of those images clearly show Ultima Thule.

"We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", announced Alice Bowman, mission operations manager.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 32 km long, though there's a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck. It takes over six hours for radio signals to reach Earth from that far away.

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An unmanned NASA spacecraft has sent a signal back to Earth that it has successfully made it through a risky flyby past the most distant planetary object ever studied, the U.S. space agency said on Tuesday.

"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".

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.

The team of scientists cheered when the first signals were received from the New Horizons craft.

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

Wherever we've explored in the Solar System, we've found the unexpected.

The New Horizons is approximately 4 billion miles from the sun.

In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world.

We'll soon find out. "From here out, the data will just get better and better". The processed image on the right confirms the object's elongated shape.

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