NASA Probe Reaches Most Distant Target Ever, Astronomers Celebrate

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Just as the new year began, so too did an incredible new era of space exploration, with NASA confirming a successful flyby of the most distant world human beings have ever encountered.

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

Scientists had not discovered Ultima Thule when the probe was launched, according to Nasa, making the mission unique in that respect.

We do know that Ultima Thule has a reddish colour, probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years.

"There's a bit of all of us on that spacecraft", she said, "and it will continue after we're long gone here on Earth".

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The night before, after ringing in the new year, team members had counted down and celebrated the moment they expected New Horizons would make its closest approach to its target based on their knowledge of its trajectory.

Its mission now totalling $800 million, the baby grand piano-sized New Horizons will keep hurtling toward the edge of the solar system, observing Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs, from afar, and taking cosmic particle measurements. While these early images represent our first up-close glimpse of Ultima Thule, scientists say we can expect to receive even sharper, higher-resolution pictures from tomorrow onwards - the first prizes of a 20-month haul of data New Horizons will transmit home. The spacecraft is believed to have come within 2200 miles (3500km) of Ultima Thule.

"New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history - 4 billion miles from the Sun", said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a news release.

"We have a healthy spacecraft", said Alice Bowman, missions operations manager for the New Horizons spacecraft, which zipped by Ultima Thule at 12:33 am (0533 GMT) on New Year's Day.

A few black-and-white pictures of Ultima Thule might be available following Tuesday's official confirmation, but the highly anticipated close-ups won't be ready until Wednesday or Thursday, in color, it is hoped.

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Initial flyby data has also revealed our first discovery about Ultima Thule, showing that it is spinning like a propeller, with its axis pointing approximately towards New Horizons. It's also could be two objects closely orbiting each other, but only more data will show for sure.

Weaver said later this week the team will be able to see clearer images revealing whether there are craters on Ultima Thule's surface and other details.

'I was inspired by the idea that this is the furthest that the Hand of Man has ever reached - it will be by far the most distant object we have ever seen at close quarters, through the images which the space craft will beam back to Earth.

The icy rock has been in a deep-freeze preservation state since the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

Stephen Gwyn, an astronomer and data specialist with Canada's National Research Council who is participating in the mission, said the image has already solved one mystery: how the oblong-shaped Ultima Thule can rotate without changing its brightness.

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