New Horizons travels 4 billion miles from Earth in farthest flyby ever

A composite image of Ultima Thule was used to make a prediction about its size and shape

A composite image of Ultima Thule was used to make a prediction about its size and shape

New Horizons will continue to explore the Kuiper Belt, the unexplored region of the solar system beyond Neptune that is filled with small objects orbiting the Sun (like Ultima Thule and Pluto). Ultima Thule, a rock 30 kilometers (19 miles) in diameter, could be what numerous solar system's rocky planets looked like in their infancy.

NASA's Deep Space Network received a signal from the spacecraft at 10:30 a.m.

After trekking 1 billion miles beyond Pluto into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will now seek clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets.

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

This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft.

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's encounter to be riskier and more hard than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.

"We know it's not round - that's one thing we can say with confidence", said John Spencer, a member of the mission's science team, during a Monday afternoon news briefing at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., which is headquarters for New Horizons.

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The high-tech piece of kit survived its flyby of the 30km-wide Ultima Thule and managed to collect a host of pictures, measurements, and other data from the mission.

Scientists think the clarity of the images captured during the Ultima Thule flyby could rival the photographs taken during New Horizon's close encounter with Pluto.

The nerdiest New Year's party in the solar system is happening 4billion miles from Earth, where a lone, intrepid explorer is en route to the furthest object humans have ever explored.

New Horizons examined Pluto when it flew past the dwarf-planet three years ago.

Seeing Ultima, then, is like witnessing our solar system origins, long before the first life even evolved on Earth. By the time the first images and data stream back to Earth, the borders of the known world will have expand once more. The far-flung space rock is an inhabitant of the Kuiper Belt, the ring of debris that encircles the icy outer reaches of solar system. And New Horizons is a 13-year-old spacecraft; its power generator produces less wattage than it used to, which means operators must carefully prioritize their use of remaining fuel. "We'll find out Tuesday". Subsequent observations suggest it is small - no more 20 miles across - and peanut shaped.

"As you celebrate New Year's Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the wonderful things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it", Stern wrote in the New York Times on Monday. "From here out, the data will just get better and better".

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