NASA spacecraft dashes by world beyond Pluto

A mock-up of the Chang'e-4 lunar lander

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NASA said the orbit some 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) away marks "a leap for humankind" because no spacecraft has ever "circled so close to such a small space object - one with barely enough gravity to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit". New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006. Indeed, the year started with the demise of the planet-hunting Kepler observatory, and the launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which quickly announced the discovery of two new exoplanets - one that scientists believed may be similar to Earth. Based on these two factors, this object could be a pristine piece of the early solar system, which formed at its current location, and thus was not tossed around by the gravity of the other planets (looking at YOU, Neptune), and has possibly gone completely (or almost completely) untouched for over 4.5 billion years.

Not long after the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day, as 2018 gave way to 2019, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by the far-out space rock Ultima Thule. "Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt". After the quick flyby, New Horizons will continue on through the Kuiper Belt with other planned observations of more objects, but the mission scientists said this is the highlight. "The New Horizons team makes it look easy". Given the great distance between New Horizons and Earth, it will take the data at least six hours to reach our planet and an extra few for NASA to process it.

The spacecraft's next target, Ultima Thule, could contain even more surprises.

Scientists know only that Ultima Thule is elongated like a baked potato. "The exploration at Ultima Thule is a fitting way to honor the brash exploration and boldness that was Apollo", Stern wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

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Word of success came 10 hours after the middle-of-the-night encounter, once flight controllers in Maryland, US received word from the spacecraft late Tuesday morning.

Yesterday, on the very edge of our solar system, its mission reached its climax when the New Horizons probe hurtled past a mass of rock that has drifted undisturbed for four billion years.

That new data should help clear up some outstanding questions scientists still have about this distant object - including whether that bowling pin shape actually masks two closely co-orbiting objects (not one integrated mass), and how long it takes the spinning object to complete a rotation. "We'll find out 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.

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The spaceship will be just 2,200 miles from the asteroid, which is impressive considering it was spotted from 4.03 billion kilometres away by the Kepler Telescope. That's another mysterious detail about (486958) 2014 MU69, as it's officially known, that we'll be able to say for certain tomorrow, Stern said. It will also measure the Kuiper Belt's environment.

The encounter with Ultima is among the more hard feats NASA has attempted. And we can learn its composition.

"Ultima Thule is finally revealing its secrets to us", said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins. "Being the most distant exploration of anything in history, it's also going to be historic".

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