The first images from New Horizons' flyby of Ultima Thule arrive this

NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW

NASA announcement: New Horizons set for historic flyby TOMORROW

Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft aimed to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule.

The transmission broke a tense moment of silence as science team leaders who have been with the New Horizons project for more than two decades waited for their first contact since the flyby.

The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the fly-by, around 9:45am (10:45pm Hong Kong time). Eastern, passing approximately 3,500 kilometers from the Kuiper Belt object. No one has ever seen an object that's frozen nearly to absolute zero.

We'll soon find out.

NASA's vaunted social media operation, which had fallen silent during the partial government shutdown, has been temporarily restored to cover the event.

The spacecraft came within 2,200 miles of the tiny celestial body at 12:30 a.m. ET Tuesday, almost 13 years after it launched from Earth in January 2006. Asteroids became a popular destination too: Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft touched down on the asteroid Ryugu in October and collected a sample that will return to Earth in 2020. "We've just accomplished the most distant flyby", she said.

Ultima Thule lies 6.5bn km (4bn miles) from Earth, beyond the Solar System in an area termed the Kuiper Belt.

While celebrating at NASA's headquarters, principal investigator Alan Stern said it would take months to receive the data from today's fly-by. As distant as it is, Pluto is barely in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called Twilight Zone stretching beyond Neptune.

Until the 1990s, no one knew what hid out here, where sunlight is 0.05 as faint as it is on Earth. 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. The small body continues to orbit undisturbed on a more circular path than comets, never getting closer than 42 Astronomical Units, or 42 times the average distance between the Earth and the sun.

It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, and is believed to be 12-20 miles in size.

The last blobby picture sent back before the flyby - the best available so far - showed that Ultima Thule is 35 by 15 kilometer, with a blurry peanut shape, so it is either "bi-lobate", with a different size for each lobe, or it could be two objects whose images blurred together.

"I think it is fitting that this flyby of Ultima Thule is at the interface of the 60th anniversary of Explorer 1 [the first US satellite] in 2018 and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019", Zurbuchen said in an email that Stern read aloud Monday, reports Space.com.

The New Horizons team is seen before news conference after it received confirmation from the New Horizons spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Ultima Thule, in Laurel, MD.

It is hoped the information taken from Ultima will provide clues as to the formation of the Solar System.

In July of 2015, after travelling for over nine years in space, the New Horizons probe made history, by giving us our very first close-up look at Pluto and its moons. New Horizons passed within a few thousand miles of the oblong space rock known as Ultima Thule just after the calendar page turned to 2019 on the East Coast, and it's a huge achievement for the space agency and astronomy community in general.

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