The first images from New Horizons' flyby of Ultima Thule arrive this

Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory  Southwest Research Institute

The New Horizons flyby of 2014 MU69, aptly nicknamed Ultima Thule for a Latin phrase meaning beyond the known world, will not only be the most distant planetary encounter in human history, but the object will also be the most primitive world ever visited by spacecraft.

Now, over three years later, the spacecraft is making another historic flyby, this time of an object only discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope roughly a year before New Horizons sped past Pluto.

Although scientists have modeled the shape of Ultima Thule, as the time of flyby draws closer, the team had hoped the object's "light curve" would have revealed more about it. It's a tougher encounter than at Pluto because of the distance and the considerable unknowns, and because the spacecraft is older now. Instead, team members and their guests gathered nearby for back-to-back countdowns at midnight and again 33 minutes later.

May debuted a music composition written in honour of the event. The first post-flyby images will be unveiled on Wednesday, kicking New Horizons' long-running campaign of discovery back into high gear.

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).

NASA rang in the New Year with jubilation after receiving confirmation that the New Horizons spacecraft completed a successful flyby Tuesday of the most distant object ever explored in space.

An image of Thule, sent overnight and barely more detailed than previous images, deepens the mystery of whether Thule is a single rock shaped like an asymmetrical peanut or actually two rocks orbiting each other, "blurred together due to their proximity", Stern said. A version of the image with superimposed lines shows where stars blinked out as they passed behind Ultima Thule, and two red circles indicate how Ultima Thule would be oriented if it is really a pair of objects. "We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmission".

It is - and the first decent images of Ultima Thule are likely already on their way back to Earth from the spacecraft.

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The object Ultima Thule, the nickname for 2014 MU69, was discovered by Marc Buie of Southwest Research Institute in 2014, in an extraordinary search among millions of stars imaged for the goal with the Hubble Space Telescope.

"Now it is just a matter of time to see the data coming down", said deputy project scientist John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute.

"We set a record!"

'In effect, Ultima should be a valuable window into the early stages of planet formation and what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago'. Owing to the probe's great distance from Earth and the relative weakness of its signal, it took several hours for scientists to receive and process the image.

Wherever we've explored in the Solar System, we've found the unexpected. In this case, the probe will literally sweep past Ultima Thule at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour (51,000 kilometers per hour or about 14.6 kilometers per second).

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.

"Who knows what we might find?".

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