NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

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NASA's New Horizons spacecraft was rocketing toward history Monday as it neared the most distant world ever visited by a human-made object: the mysterious, icy Ultima Thule, 1 billion miles beyond Pluto and an astounding 4 billion miles from Earth.

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FILE - This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. He's particularly interested in stereo imaging for this leg of the mission.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The New Horizons probe is about the size of a grand piano.

Now it hopes to solve the mystery surrounding Ultima Thule, which is believed to be a binary system but could be something much stranger.

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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. He asked if I could come up with a theme for Ultima Thule which could be played as the NH probe reached this new destination.

This flyby is the first exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object up close - and the most primitive world ever observed by a spacecraft. The space rock features a diameter of roughly 19 miles. These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years. This first image of the peanut-shaped object will be followed by more scientific data and higher-resolution images over the next few hours and days.

The flyby comes three-and-a-half years after New Horizons swung past Pluto and beamed back the first ever close-up images of the dwarf planet.

It's hard to know the exact location of the object, although NASA published several graphical representations of the New Horizons' trajectory through the Kuiper Belt.

Thule was a mythical island on medieval maps, thought to be the most northern point on Earth. It's fitting, considering New Horizons' pioneering journey.

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"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. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement". As such, it is "probably the best time capsule we've ever had for understanding the birth of our solar system and the planets in it", Stern said.

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

According to a report in Digital Trends, NASA has already known that Ultima Thule's shape is not spherical, but that rather it boasts a kind of elongated shape, suggesting it could also be two objects which move close together. Researchers know enough about this tiny world's orbit to be able to intercept it, Stern said, "but there's very little else we know". Though nerve-wracking for engineers, encounter mode ensures that New Horizons makes the most of its brief time near Ultima Thule.

Ultima Thule is what's known as a "cold classical Kuiper belt object".

Asteroid 2014 MU69 was discovered via the Hubble orbital telescope back in 2014. For example, the mission team still can not tell whether Ultima is a single or binary object.

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