NASA confirms distant Ultima Thule fly-by

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A huge spill-over crowd in a nearby auditorium joined in the loud celebration, cheering each green, or good, status update.

Scientists chose to study Ultima Thule with New Horizons after the spaceship, which launched in 2006, completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet.

"We're off to New Horizons so hold on to the wheel", he sings in the rare solo song, which was first played as the craft passed Ultima Thule - an object a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto, last night.

Because of the vast distance from here to the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, the time it takes large amounts of data to be sent back to Earth is quite long, taking many months to receive the full data package.

NASA rang in the New Year on Tuesday with a historic flyby of the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, a cosmic body ever explored by humankind - a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule - in the hopes of learning more about how planets took shape. "We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", announced Alice Bowman, mission operations manager.

The probe zoomed past the Kuiper Belt object, Ultima Thule, at 32,000 miles per hour, early on New Year's morning.

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. Scientists wanted the spacecraft staring down Ultima Thule and collecting data, not turning toward Earth to phone home.

Ultima Thule was unknown until 2014, eight years after New Horizons departed Earth. Once received, the signals confirmed that the flyby had taken place and that New Horizons was operating perfectly.

New Horizons launched in 2006 on a mission to explore Pluto, which it achieved in 2015.

This time, the drama will unfold 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth, so far away it will be 10 hours before flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, know whether the spacecraft survived the close encounter.

"I don't know about all of you, but I'm really liking this 2019 thing so far", lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute said to applause. "The exploration at Ultima Thule is a fitting way to honor the brash exploration and boldness that was Apollo", Stern wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

Scientists do not yet have a clear picture of exactly what Ultima Thule is, whether a single object or a cluster, spanning about 19 miles (30 kilometers) in diameter.

"It's a better pixelated blob", said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The exact shape and composition won't be known until Ultima Thule starts sending back its treasure trove of data, a process expected to last nearly two years. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto. Given the uncertainty of MU69's position-it was discovered only four years ago and only a fraction of its orbit is known-New Horizons' first images had to cover a wide field, at low resolution.

The small body is known as a "cold classical" Kuiper Belt object, or KBO, meaning it is a pristine sample of that original material, circling the sun in a circular, flat orbit that indicates it has not been jostled or otherwise disturbed since the solar system's birth.