NASA's New Horizons probe has succeeded in its flyby of a tiny, distant world that is quite possibly the oldest cosmic body ever explored by humankind so far.
On Tuesday, NASA rang in the New Year with the historic flyby of the Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee), which is 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away from Earth in a dark, icy region called the Kuiper Belt. At the control rooms of the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, the New Horizons mission team received the first signals from the probe after 10:30 a.m. EST, according to Phys.org.
Mission operations manager Alice Bowman confirmed that their spacecraft is "healthy" and has succeeded in zooming past the primordial planetary body intact.
The historic New Year's flyby occurred around 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. The dwarf planet had previously been the most distant world ever visited by a spacecraft. The New Horizons probe, which traveled through space at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour, made its closest approach of Ultima Thule at 2,200 miles from its surface.
Bowman added that more images of the Ultima Thule will start coming in soon. These will give scientists a close look at an ancient building block of planets and give them an idea of how they were formed.
Alan Stern, lead planetary scientist for New Horizons, explained the significance of this mission, saying that Ultima Thule, as a relic from the early days of the solar system, would give them clues as to how planets took shape.
Ultima Thule is apparently perfectly preserved from its original formation as it is in a state of deep freeze.
"Everything we are going to learn about Ultima—from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things—are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system," Stern said.
Based on the blurry image of the planetary body released Tuesday, Ultima Thule appeared to be oblong in shape, resembling a bowling pin or a peanut. It is estimated to be 22 miles in length and 9 miles in width (35 by 15 kilometers).
The mission team is expecting more images of the Ultima Thule to arrive from the probe by Wednesday, but from what they have observed, Stern said he believes it to be one single body and not two pieces orbiting each other.
A clearer picture of the Ultima Thule will be coming in the near future, as Stern said high-resolution images are expected in February.
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