A short 30 minutes after the stroke of midnight, NASA ushered in the new year with a historic flyby of Ultima Thule.
At 12:33 a.m. EST on New Year's Day, NASA's New Horizons probe zipped by Ultima Thule at 32,000 miles per hour, coming in as close as 2,200 miles from this mysterious alien world at the edge of the solar system.
Nestled deep within the Kuiper Belt — a vast disk of icy celestial bodies located beyond the orbit of Neptune — Ultima Thule is the most distant object to ever be visited by a man-made spacecraft.
"We set a record! Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away," said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
Originally known as 2014 MU69, this small frozen world lies nearly 4 billion miles from Earth — or about 1 billion miles farther away than Pluto, the first flyby target of New Horizons. The spacecraft's latest milestone is the farthest flyby in the history of human space exploration — and a memorable way to ring in the new year, notes Space.
Reporting from the base of New Horizons operations at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, Space's Tariq Malik penned a vivid description of the incredible atmosphere at APL as hundreds of scientists, dignitaries, and reporters gathered to count down the new year and to celebrate the epic Ultima Thule flyby.As the Inquisitr previously reported, the historic flyby of Ultima Thule was celebrated with its very own rock anthem, titled "New Horizons" and composed by Queen lead guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May. The song premiered shortly after midnight, about half an hour ahead of the big event.
"We will never forget this moment," said May, who is a New Horizons team member and who led the New Year's countdown at APL. "This is completely unknown territory."
The momentous Ultima Thule flyby occurred amid a partial government shutdown, which limited NASA's public outreach and media coverage of the event. However, both NASA Live and the Johns Hopkins APL YouTube channel managed to air live webcasts of New Horizons' historic flyby."I think it is fitting that this flyby of Ultima Thule is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 [the first U.S. satellite] in 2018 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019," NASA's associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement, read aloud by Stern during the APL festivities on January 1. "To me, this milestone for New Horizons is full of everything that NASA and NASA science is about."
This is the second close encounter for the New Horizons probe since the spacecraft zipped past Pluto and its five moons in 2015. Given the tremendous distance from Earth to the current location of the intrepid spacecraft, NASA is still waiting for the confirmation signal from New Horizons, estimated to reach our planet later today, at around 9:45 a.m. EST.More details on the Ultima Thule flyby will be made available over the next couple of days as the New Horizons team receives further data from the distant spacecraft, reports Phys.org.
"I can't promise you success. We are straining the capabilities of this spacecraft," said Stern.
"By tomorrow, we'll know how we did. So, stay tuned. There are no second chances for New Horizons."