Live Updates on the New Horizons Flyby of Ultima Thule

Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute

Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Southwest Research Institute

In an incredible world-first, NASA has released an image from a historic flyby of Ultima Thule, a bowling pin-shaped celestial object at the edge of our solar system some 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away.

Scientists suspect Ultima Thule is a single object no more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) long, though there's a chance it could prove to be two smaller bodies orbiting each other or connected by a slender neck.

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.

For Ultima Thule - which wasn't even known when New Horizons departed Earth in 2006 - the endeavour was more hard. The speakers took delight in showing off the latest picture of Ultima Thule, taken just hundreds of thousands of miles before the 12:33 a.m. close approach.

'We have a healthy spacecraft, we have just completed the most distant flyby, ' she said.

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

The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9:45 am (1:45am AEDT, Wednesday), letting NASA know if New Horizons survived the risky, high-speed encounter. However, this still won't be the end of its mission, as NASA hopes that it will continue to explore the distant Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt until at least 2021.

Scientists rejoiced at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) today at 10:29 a.m. EST, saying the moment ushered in the new era of "exploration from the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system". Confirmation was not expected for hours, though, given the vast distance. "Nothing like it has ever been explored", Stern said in a statement.

The New Horizons probe was slated to reach the "third zone" in the uncharted heart of the Kuiper Belt at 12.33am Eastern (1.33pm Malaysian time).

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Ultima Thule belongs to a class of Kuiper belt objects called the "cold classicals", which have almost circular orbits with low inclinations to the solar plane, and which have not been perturbed since their formation perhaps 4.6 billion years ago.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth.

"Congratulations to NASA's New Horizons team, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute for making history yet again", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. "Think of it. We're a billion miles farther than Pluto".

"Ultima Thule is finally revealing its secrets to us", said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins.

Ultima Thule as an elongated blob.

The answer is one that scientists already suspected: Ultima Thule's spin axis is roughly pointed toward Earth, so that it appears somewhat like a turning propeller with the illuminated side constantly facing earthbound telescopes. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.

Located more than 6bn km from the sun, the minor planet is an object that NASA researchers believe to be an important piece of evidence in the investigation of how our solar system formed, and is the farthest ever observed up close by humankind.

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

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