The spacecraft came within 2,200 miles of the tiny celestial body at 12:30 a.m. ET Tuesday, almost 13 years after it launched from Earth in January 2006.
Closest approach takes place in the early morning hours of New Year's Day - 12:33 a.m. EST - marking the event as the most distant exploration of worlds ever completed by humankind.
"I've never seen so many people so excited about two pixels", Stern said, his face advertising his own excitement. "We're very confident in the spacecraft and very confident in the plan that we have for the exploration of Ultima", said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, at a December 31 press conference.
It is the furthest exploration of any object in the Solar System.
News of the successful flyby was met with jubilation at Mission Control.
He said: "We've looked pretty hard for hazards and we haven't seen anything to be concerned about, so we are sticking with our primary trajectory".
NASA's New Horizons space probe came to within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule, a space rock that lies four billion miles from Earth-and looks to be shaped a little like a peanut. The instruments on New Horizons will create geologic and compositional maps of Ultima Thule, as well as searching for any rings, debris, or even small satellites orbiting the object. "Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt".
New Horizons completes flyby of Ultima Thule
When New Horizons launched in 2006, it had Pluto in its sights.
So when NASA chose a target for its New Horizons spacecraft that was farther than anything explored before, "Ultima Thule" seemed a fitting moniker. This "light curve" is the changes in brightness over time that New Horizons should pick up from Ultima Thule, as it rotates in space and the different features on its surface reflect back different amounts of light from the Sun (even at its far distance).
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft, said Tuesday it had "zipped past" the object known as 2014 MU69, or Ultima Thule.
"We're already learning about Ultima from up close", Stern said. Though nerve-wracking for engineers, encounter mode ensures that New Horizons makes the most of its brief time near Ultima Thule.
With Ultima Thule keeping its secrets right up until the last moment, it seems, there's really no telling exactly what New Horizons will find as it whizzes past tonight.
Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to NASA. Many have likely remained the same since the dawn of the solar system, making them essentially time capsules for astronomers. Indeed, the year started with the demise of the planet-hunting Kepler observatory, and the launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which quickly announced the discovery of two new exoplanets - one that scientists believed may be similar to Earth.
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. "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".
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