NASA's New Horizons mission has begun streaming its precious data bit by bit across more than 6.6 billion kilometres of interplanetary space to gradually reveal the frozen face and character of the most distant object a spacecraft has ever explored.
Scientists made a decision 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.
Scientists did not want to interrupt observations as New Horizons swept past Ultima Thule - described as a bullet intersecting with another bullet - so they delayed radio transmissions.
We do know that Ultima Thule has a reddish colour, probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years.
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.
'We have a healthy spacecraft, we have just completed the most distant flyby, ' she said.
The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and 3 1/2 years after New Horizons' unprecedented swing past Pluto.
Deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt, a frigid expanse beyond Neptune that is also known as the Twilight Zone, Ultima Thule is believed to be a preserved relic dating back 4.5 billion years to the formation of our solar system.
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Delighted mission controllers confirmed that the robotic explorer survived its encounter with Ultima Thule early Tuesday morning and had started transmitting the images and data it gathered during the historic flyby.
The New Horizons spacecraft flew by Ultima Thule at a distance of 3,500 km. It's scheduled to continue exploring the Kuiper Belt until at least 2021.
Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like - whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster. Although NASA's Voyagers crossed the Kuiper Belt on their way to true interstellar space, their 1970s-era instruments were not almost as sophisticated as those on New Horizons, Weaver noted, and the twin spacecraft did not pass near any objects known at the time.
While the encounter might have taken place just after midnight on NYE, it wasn't until about six hours later that scientists at NASA, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute actually received the first images of the flyby, thanks to the incredible distance the data had to be transmitted across space. "Think of it. We're a billion miles farther than Pluto". An answer should be forthcoming on Wednesday, once new and better pictures arrive.
"Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the "giant leap" of Apollo's lunar missions".
Ultima Thule as an elongated blob. Its odd shape means that it's either bilobate or in fact two objects in orbit around each other.
"New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history - 4 billion miles from the Sun", says principal investigator Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. At a speed of 31,500 miles per hour (50,700 kph), New Horizons could easily be knocked out by a rice-sized particle.
"The data we have look fantastic, and we're already learning about Ultima from up close", Stern said. He noted it took 12 years to sell the project, five years to build it and nine years to reach the first target, Pluto.