New Horizons-which launched in January 2006 and has already flown by Pluto-will continue making observations of Ultima Thule over the next couple of years, with scientists hoping that the data collected will reveal the secrets of the distant object.
Now 1.6 billion km beyond Pluto for its second mission into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will study the makeup of Ultima Thule's atmosphere and terrain in a months-long study to seek clues about the formation of the solar system and its planets.
On Tuesday, scientists released an image that was taken before the closest point of the approach that revealed Ultima Thule is likely to be a bowling pin-shaped object about 35 kilometres long by 15 kilometres at its widest.
Update 1/1/2019 12:48 p.m. ET: Scientists with NASA shared a slightly clearer image of what they affectionately referred to as a "pixelated blob" taken pre-flyby.
Though the closest point of the flyby, only 2,200 miles above Ultima Thule's surface, occurred just after midnight, the spacecraft was pointed at the object for a few more hours with its antenna, rigidly locked to the spacecraft body, pointing away from Earth. From its brightness and size, New Horizons team members have calculated Ultima's reflectivity, which is only about 10 per cent, or about as dark as garden dirt.
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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.
The observations should help scientists ascertain how deep-freeze objects like Ultima Thule formed, along with the rest of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago. Confirmation won't come for hours, though, given the vast distance.
"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.
Since then, over a decade's worth of scientific advancements has helped us to learn more about the Kuiper Belt and the unusual worlds that might inhabit it, but there's no denying that this first up-close brush with an actual Kuiper Belt Object is an unprecedented accomplishment.
On Tuesday, the New Horizons team announced the successful flyby at 10:31 a.m. EST after receiving "healthy" data from the spaceship, Engadget reported.
Stern said Monday from Mission Control at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel that the team has worked years for this moment and now, "It's happening!"
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"Think about it - we're a billion miles further than Pluto."
"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions", Stern noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times.
An artist's illustration shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles beyond Pluto. Ultima Thule is considered a member of the "Cold Classical" Kuiper Belt Object, because it appears to be the gravitationally unperturbed and original material of the Kuiper Belt.
It will become the most distant world ever explored by humankind.
A tiny, icy world a billion miles beyond Pluto is getting a New Year's Day visitor. "It seems only fitting that the New Horizons flyby relied upon Maunakea/CFHT data". It will take nearly two years before all of the data can be downloaded.
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