Applause and cheers broke out at mission control when the signals from New Horizons were confirmed on Tuesday.
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. "This science will help us understand the origins of our solar system".
On Monday, planetary scientists released a fuzzy image of Ultima Thule, snapped the day prior by the New Horizons exploration spacecraft from some 1.2 million miles away.
An artist's conception of what Ultima Thule might look like.
The image revealed that the object appears to have a bowling pin-like shape, elongated and spinning like a propeller.
New Horizons zoomed past the small celestial object known as Ultima Thule. It is believed to be 12 to 20 miles in size.
Stephen Gwyn, an astronomer and data specialist with Canada's National Research Council who is participating in the mission, said the image has already solved one mystery: how the oblong-shaped Ultima Thule can rotate without changing its brightness. Data from these close-up images are now traveling through the solar system, so the fuzzy "blob" will get profoundly detailed over the coming days, revealing the surface of this distant world.
"This mission represents to me the spirit of adventure, discovery and inquiry which is inherent in the human spirit", May said during the countdown to the flyby.More news: Second child dies in custody - US immigration authorities
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'In effect, Ultima should be a valuable window into the early stages of planet formation and what the solar system was like over 4.5 billion years ago'.
Despite the government shutdown, several NASA scientists and other employees showed up at Johns Hopkins as private citizens, unwilling to miss history in the making.
"We have a healthy spacecraft", mission operations manager Alice Bowman announced here at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory. "This is what leadership in space exploration is all about".
What scientists hope to gather from what the ship will be sending back is an insight into how the solar system was formed.
Offering scientists the first up-close look at an ancient building block of planets, the flyby took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft.
It is located in the Kuiper Belt, a huge asteroid belt that surrounds our solar system and contains the leftovers of the system's formation. Confirmation was not expected for hours, though, given the vast distance.
But as of Tuesday morning, New Horizons scientists were betting on a single object. Its extended mission then set its sights on a new object further into the Kuiper Belt.
This will be over three times closer than the craft flew to Pluto, according to New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.
New Horizons launched almost 13 years ago as part of NASA's New Frontiers program with the foremost mission of conducting a flyby of Pluto, which occurred in 2015.