New Horizons spacecraft makes New Year's Day flyby of Ultima Thule, the farthest rendezvous ever

By Tariq Malik, Managing Editor
January 02, 2019, 9:07:09 AM EST

new horizons 2019

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flies by the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule on Jan. 1, 2019 in this artist's illustration. It's the furthest planetary flyby in history (Photo/Adrian Mann/All About Space)

As the world celebrated the start of 2019, scientists with NASA's New Horizons spacecraft partied with them. But the bigger celebration came just over 30 minutes later, when New Horizons made history with the flyby of Ultima Thule, a mysterious object 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth in the Kuiper Belt, home to frozen relics left over from the birth of the solar system. It's the farthest flyby of an object in our solar system; and the second rendezvous for New Horizons, which visited Pluto in July 2015.

"We set a record! Never before has a spacecraft explored something so far away," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said after the flyby today (Jan. 1). "I mean, think of it. We're a billion miles further than Pluto, and now we're going to keep going into the Kuiper Belt.

New Horizons flew by Ultima Thule at 12:33 a.m. EST (0533 GMT), hurtling past at a mind-boggling 32,000 mph (51,500 km/h) as it captured the first close-up views of a Kuiper Belt object. The cosmic rendezvous occurred so far from Earth, it'll take more than 6 hours for a signal from New Horizons to reach Earth. NASA expects to hear back from the probe at 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT).

"We have a healthy spacecraft," said Alice Bowman, mission operations manager for New Horizons. "We've just accomplished the most distant flyby. We are ready for Ultima Thule science transmission."

And oh, the party. With news of signal confirmation, a standing ovation by mission team members and invited guests broke out in an auditorium here. And of course, there was the New Year's Eve bash.

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